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Georgia's 'foreign agent' bill undermines EU hopes

March 7, 2023

Georgian authorities are backing a "foreign agent" bill despite criticism from Brussels and Washington. The bill is widely seen as emulating a repressive Russian law that allows the Kremlin to crush its critics.

Protesters in front of the parliament building in Tbilisi, with one poster showing portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Georgian former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili
The proposed law has provoked much public protest, as here in front of parliament in TbilisiImage: Irakli Gedenidze/REUTERS

Georgian lawmakers have been debating a bill that would see certain bodies deemed "foreign agents," a proposed law that many see as dangerously close to similar Russian legislation.

During the first hearing last week and further discussion on Monday, protesters stormed the Parliament building, chanting: "No to Russian law. No to traitors."

After clashes with police last Thursday in the capital, Tbilisi, at least four protesters were detained. Tensions increased as fistfights broke out in the Parliament between politicians from the ruling party, Georgian Dream, and the opposition, which accused authorities of pursuing Kremlin-like policies.

The clampdown became even more brutal on Tuesday, when riot police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse a peaceful rally in front of Georgia's Parliament. In response, some protesters have used Molotov cocktails against the police. As a result, 66 people were detained. Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili supported protesters, urging lawmakers to drop the bill.

Discontent with the bill has not been voiced just domestically: Brussels and Washington have warned that the adoption of such a law will endanger Georgia's prospects of receiving long-awaited EU candidate status. Following the clampdown on protesters, the US State Department announced that it would consider imposing sanctions on some Georgian officials responsible for the violent events.

What is the Georgian 'foreign agent' bill?

The Georgian parliamentary movement People's Power, the initiator of the bill, is notorious for its anti-Western rhetoric and conspiracy theory narratives. The movement was founded by former MPs from Georgian Dream and is considered by most to be its satellite party.

According to the draft proposed by the movement, the foreign agent list will include NGOs and media outlets that receive 20% or more of their funding from overseas. Organizations designated as foreign agents will be barred from receiving information from civil servants and obliged to submit annual declarations.

The ruling party has backed the bill.

"The bill provides one thing — transparency; if someone receives funding from foreign sources, it should be transparent not to us, but to society," said Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the Georgian Dream party.

In a conversation with DW, however, Natia Kapanadze, a media lawyer, dismissed this argument.

"The Georgian revenue service has all publicly available information about every organization, and the National Communications Commission has data about media outlets' finances," she said.

"This bill suggests no additional tools for financial transparency. It follows the Russian narrative, and the real goal is to cause serious reputational damage to the media and NGOs," she added.

Is the Georgian bill inspired by the Kremlin?

Opposition leaders, journalists and human rights activists have accused the government in Tbilisi of mimicking the Russian "foreign agent" law that has allowed President Vladimir Putin to demonize and silence critical voices in the country.  Russia has used the "foreign agent" tag, which carries connotations with the denigratory Soviet-era term "enemies of the people," since 2012.

The rising anti-Western narratives promulgated by the Georgian government and its refusal to join international sanctions against Russia after the invasion of Ukraine give the impression that Georgia is drifting into the Russian orbit.

Critics point to Bidzina Ivanishvili, the former prime minister and founder of the Georgian Dream party, a businessman who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s. He has formally left the political scene but is still regarded to be a shadow ruler of Georgia.

Bidzina Ivanishvili
Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili is widely seen as the eminence grise of Georgian politics Image: David Mdzinarishvil/TASS/picture alliance

Despite their dislike of Western policies, the initiators claim to be copying American-style legislation, better known as FARA — the same rhetoric used by the Russian authorities before introducing the repressive law, which led to a crackdown on civil society and independent media.

Any similarity has been denied by the State Department spokesperson Ned Price.

"Statements that this legislation is based on the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) in the United States are patently false. In fact, this draft legislation appears to be based on similar Russian and Hungarian legislation," he said, adding that "the bill could potentially undermine Georgia's Euro-Atlantic integration."

Human rights activists from the Georgian National Platform have drawn attention to the main difference between the US law and the proposed Georgian one. According to them, in the American case, the law doesn't affect US partners but only countries that can threaten US security. In contrast, the Georgian version will first and foremost target NGOs supported by the EU and the US, which Tbilisi views as its main strategic partners.

A protester wearing a gag and beating a drum in front of the parliament building in Tbilisi
Critics of the bill see it as a move toward repression of political freedomImage: Irakli Gedenidze/REUTERS

Euro-Atlantic future in danger

The discussion of the bill has sparked concerns about Georgia's prospects for receiving EU candidate status. Last June, the European Commission deferred Georgia's candidacy while giving the go-ahead for Ukraine and Moldova. The decision was followed by massive protests in Tbilisi, indicating the public's support for the European path and discontent with the government's actions that led to the failure to secure the candidacy.

Georgia: EU frustration

The ruling party denied responsibility and claimed that Georgia was far further along with reforms than Ukraine and Moldova.

Tornike Sharashenidze, professor at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA), says that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the key element in anti-Western rhetoric. "The government's official version is that Georgia was pushed to open a second front against Russia, but we didn't do this, and that's why we were denied EU candidate status. They play on people's fear of war really well."

But despite the fear of war, support for EU and NATO membership is steadily rising — 81 %, as indicated in National Democratic Institute (NDI) polls. EU and NATO membership is seen as the top priority for Georgians given the country's complicated history with Russia, which occupied 20% of its territory in the 2008 war.

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, who has a largely ceremonial role in the parliamentary republic of Georgia, has described the bill as "unconstitutional," given the fact that joining the EU and NATO is enshrined in the country's constitution. She has vowed to veto the law; however, that veto can be overpowered by the parliament.

NATO and Georgian flags seen at a rally in Tbilisi in 2019
Many Georgians would like to see their country become a member of NATOImage: Shakh Aivazov/AP/picture alliance

Do Georgian authorities really want to join the EU?

While Brussels doesn't indicate exact reasons why Georgia was denied candidate status last summer, some analysts believe that one could be the imprisonment of the director of the main opposition TV station, Nika Gvaramia. The Georgian opposition believes that it was a deliberate act of sabotage, since the charges were introduced shortly before the European Commission's decision was announced.

Another obstacle to obtaining the candidacy this year is the proposed bill. Following the parliamentary hearings, Pawel Herczynski, EU ambassador in Georgia, stated that the bill would be incompatible with the 12-point recommendations issued by the European Commission after Georgia failed to gain EU candidacy status in June 2022.

Political expert Kornely Kakachia, the director of the Georgian Institute of Politics, suggested to DW that the obstacles have been created artificially because the governing party is not genuinely interested in joining the EU, as it fears such a move would put at risk its grip on power.

"If they are to fulfill the 12-point recommendations necessary to gain candidacy status, they will lose power. It would mean that there is a fair election and that the government cannot use administrative resources to marginalize the media and civil society. And most importantly, they will have to 'deoligarchizise' the country — a move that will target oligarch Ivanishvili," he said.

"But the reality is that the foreign agent law, if adopted, will make Georgia seen as an authoritarian state. The more authoritarian Georgia becomes, the more it will drift away from Brussels and get closer to Moscow, unless there is domestic and international pressure," he added.

Edited by: Timothy Jones

This article was updated at 1840 UTC on March 7, 2023, to reflect a further clampdown on protesters outside of the Parliament.