Ben Franklin Inspires Freedom Seekers in the Republic of Georgia
The Franklin Club brings the ideas of classical liberalism to Georgian civil society in the face of government opposition
By Sandro Sharashenidze, CEO of the Franklin Club; Alexander Zibzibadze, chairman of the board of the Franklin Club; and Ilia Murtazashvili, member of the Advisory Board of the Franklin Club and associate director of the Center for Governance and Markets at the University of Pittsburgh
The Republic of Georgia is known for its historic winemaking and for the “Rose Revolution” of 2003 that created a burst of economic and social freedom in the post-Soviet Caucasus. In the wake of fraudulent parliamentary elections, people took to the streets and helped the country onto a different path that led it to become one of most economically open nations in the world, according to the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. Twenty years later, however, the nation is watching its freedoms slip away.
To curb this trend, a group of like-minded individuals founded the Franklin Club in 2021 to promulgate the philosophies of free markets and classical liberalism throughout Georgian society. Taking our cue from Benjamin Franklin, we—an otherwise unaffiliated group of students, teachers and educated professionals—sought to emulate the great American thinker of the Enlightenment as a way to enhance our own nation’s future.
Perhaps it should not be surprising that the political establishment in the country, represented by the ironically named Georgia Dream party, came to regard the Franklin Club as a source of instability and “revolutionary” ideas from “foreign agents” and moved to stamp it out. As a result, Georgia has become the stage for a clash of ideologies, with a loose alliance of civil libertarians standing against an increasingly authoritarian government.
A New Hope
The Rose Revolution of 2003 enabled a relatively free and fair parliamentary system to emerge from the dustbin of Soviet communism. In this climate, civil society and economic freedom bloomed. Yet the country lacked solid political foundations and was riven by territorial disputes, notably those involving the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These breakaway territories were subsequently occupied by Russia after its invasion of Georgia in 2008. If the West’s reaction to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first European war of the 21st century was muted, Georgians’ desire for freedom and better living standards was not.
The country nevertheless was on a positive socioeconomic trajectory as late as 2018. However, the subsequent global COVID-19 pandemic cast a pall over Georgia’s liberalizing economy, as it did in many other countries—developing and developed alike. When the world attempted to shut down to control the spread of the virus, V-Dem, a Swedish nonprofit that tracks the health of democracies across a variety of indicators, warned about democratic backsliding. Sure enough, Georgia Dream performed well in the general election of 2020, securing a parliamentary majority and a large number of political offices across the country.
Although Georgia Dream is ostensibly a social democratic party, it nonetheless favors many restrictive economic and social policies and is widely viewed as authoritarian and as pulling Georgian democracy backwards, possibly even back into the Russian sphere of influence. Understanding that a democratic society needs citizens educated in classical liberalism, the organizers of the Franklin Club moved during the elections of 2020 to fill what they perceived as a lack of such education in Georgia.
Our civic education projects included numerous podcasts, articles, public events and, perhaps most importantly, Franklin Academy. The latter is a four-week course aimed at high schoolers that teaches the basics of economics, political ideologies, law, international relations and debate. Created with immense help from the University of Georgia, which provided organizational support and facilities, the academy quickly became extremely popular, with hundreds of new faces coming to study there every month.
Rather than offering courses for credit or to produce certification in particular disciplines, the academy strove to present social science concepts as a means for students to enrich themselves. Elene Ebanoidze, an early participant in the academy program, said she heard about it on Facebook. “I came expecting lectures, but was happy to discover a liberating environment where I could express myself and learn what career path I was truly interested in pursuing,” Ebanoidze says.
It was exactly by providing a foundation missing in civics and in general public education that the academy became so important to its attendees. News of the academy spread by social media and word of mouth. Nikusha Asanidze, a participant in the April 2022 program, said she started off by just following her friends there, never having heard of the Franklin Club. “Within 15 minutes, it became a huge part of my life that I couldn’t stop talking about,” Asanidze says. “The friendly and interesting environment was a novel and radical shift away from what I had experienced at school.”
Thus, from humble beginnings, the Franklin Club grew into an important source of liberal education in Georgia. The group attracted the interest of the Atlas Network, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the values of individual freedom internationally. With Atlas’ help, we created the Franklin Defender project to train undergraduates more directly for careers that would help them build a better future for Georgia. The project also became a forum for these students to build personal and professional networks.
The Government Strikes Back
Just when things looked too good to be true, it turned out they were. In December 2022, Asaval-Dasavali, the largest pro-Russia newspaper in the country, published a piece about the Franklin Club accusing us of being a Masonic lodge, perhaps tapping into Ben Franklin’s affiliation with Freemasonry. Though easily dismissible, the charge nevertheless insinuated that we were somehow engaging in secretive activities working against the regime.
This accusation was the harbinger of things to come. The Franklin Club soon became the target of Imedi, the largest television network in the country, which painted us as a reincarnation of Kmara, a youth-led group that took part in the Rose Revolution. In essence, to help fight the liberal-democratic values that Franklin was working to spread, Imedi labeled us violent revolutionaries. They even accused us of having a budget of $100 million to pursue our “revolutionary motives.”
Although all these allegations were absurd, they were no joke. Earning airtime on the largest TV network is never easy, and we had managed to do so by just teaching kids about supply and demand. By the spring of 2023, we realized we had to make choices about how to advocate for the principles and ideas our members believed in. Could we be “just” an educational organization, or did we want to advocate for pragmatic policies we viewed as being critically important?
The internal polarization of the country worsened with Russia’s unprovoked 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Civil society organizations and the Georgian political opposition were accused of trying to “lead Georgia into war.” At this point it was only natural that the funding of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) would become tightly controlled. After all, how can you accuse a group of supporting war without at least monitoring their finances?
The situation came to a head when the government moved to pass the Foreign Agents Law, which required NGOs in Georgia to declare themselves “foreign agents” if at least 20% of their income came from outside the country. The law was modeled after a Russian equivalent from 2012, although the government asserted that the law was “American” in nature, since it had a superficial resemblance to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act. The purpose of such laws is to stigmatize civic organizations and NGOs in the minds of the public as being associated with foreign intelligence services. This association would earn them the public’s scorn, and the NGOs’ domestic sources of funding would dry up.
Opposition to the government’s move was widespread. Civil libertarians derided the proposed law as “Russian.” Escalating protests on March 7-8 were met with tear gas and water cannons. Multiple ambassadors signaled that passing the law would ruin Georgia’s chances of receiving EU candidate status, which even Georgia Dream values.
When the protests did not end, Georgia Dream dropped the bill. The events of March 7-8 were declared a victory for Georgia’s Gen Z, which had been the most active group at the protests. “The reason for the attacks was, of course, that the government realized the power of young people and just how much Western values mean to us,” said Franklin Academy participant Asanidze. “Franklin allows young people like us to find one another and unite.”
Many prominent NGOs opposed the Foreign Agents Law, but the Franklin Club did not formally join in the protests because we were reluctant to put the underage students attending our lectures at risk. Nevertheless, many of our members and friends were exposed to the government crackdown. And the government’s propaganda campaign against the Franklin Club did not end with the withdrawal of the hated Foreign Agents Law. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili painted us as a radical group seeking to overthrow the government, adding accusations of “satanism” and “anarchism” for good measure. His remarks were followed by similar comments from the other officials of the ruling party, clearly threatened by an organization that sought to teach high schoolers such incendiary topics as how comparative advantage works.
In this chaos, we decided to pause the Franklin Academy program and leave the University of Georgia, our first and biggest backer, who had made our success possible. We were immensely grateful to the institution and did not want to risk putting it in the crosshairs of the government’s smear campaign.
“We supported Franklin because we have the same underlying values,” said Koka Topuria, rector of the University of Georgia. “The university also seeks to help spread liberal-democratic values and ideas among its students. So as long as we stay true to our beliefs, the university will continue to support Franklin Club.”
Topuria said that despite the club’s decision to remove its Franklin Academy program from campus, the university will continue to support the organization in its efforts. “The university had an extremely negative reaction to the attacks on Franklin,” he continued, adding that the accusations were completely unfounded and false. “We do not regret helping Franklin. In fact, this is a huge source of pride for us. I believe that with our combined might we can write a new page in the history of our country’s democratization.”
Return of the Academy
The pause of the academy was followed by a few relatively quiet months as we tried to reach out to others for help. In the interim, the government decided to declare victory. In fact, the prime minister in a June address to the parliament went on a rant about Franklin Club, asking “Where are they now?” with the implication that he had put us to rest.
But it was not a final rest. Over the past two months, we have given Prime Minister Gharibashvili his answer: Franklin is back. With the help of the Atlas Network and Factory Tbilisi, an arts and cultural center, we have restarted the Franklin Academy. Hundreds of students flooded our gates last month, and we remembered what it feels like to teach. This month, we have hundreds more and have added an additional course in Rustavi, a smaller city outside Tbilisi.
Government propaganda continues to be directed at Franklin. We are routinely accused of fostering revolutions and being part of a multibillion-dollar global conspiracy to take down the ruling party. These myths are believed by no one, but they show that we have nothing to fear, as we have already borne the full brunt of propaganda. Government attacks may have been uncomfortable to deal with, but they have made us much stronger. Franklin is now expanding to multiple regions in Georgia where civic education is all but nonexistent.
The standard view of public goods is that governments provide them. But one of the lessons to be learned from Georgia’s experience is that democracy and economic freedom are not produced by the government—at least, not by governments alone. The late Elinor Ostrom, recipient of the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009, developed the idea of co-production, which posits that such goods and services are provided jointly by the government, the private sector and civil society. Co-production is relevant to the current global fight for freedom—consider the support of NGOs devoted to this effort, such as the Franklin Club and the Atlas Network. What they demonstrate is that the struggle for democracy is a shared and ongoing concern, one where support from many sources matters.
Georgia’s experience also resonates when considering Russia’s war with Ukraine. Putin has expansionist ideas, and fighting for economic and political freedom in Georgia is part of the struggle against resurgent autocracy in the region. That struggle’s success depends not only on the extent of a vibrant civil society in places like Georgia, but in how well civil society organizations are able to provide support for their activities. The fight for freedom begins with the battle of ideas, and NGOs such as the Franklin Club can help provide the education needed to win that battle.