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Rule of LawGeorgia

Georgia's president plans foreign agent law veto as 'symbol'

May 15, 2024

President Salome Zourabichvili tells DW she will veto the country's contentious new law after a month of public protests. Even though her veto can be overridden, she said she'd veto it as a "symbol" of wider displeasure.

Demonstrators hold a Georgian national flag in front of an Eternal flame at the Square of Heroes during an opposition protest against "the Russian law" in the center of Tbilisi
Younger Georgians have been especially visible and vocal in protests against the lawImage: Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP Photo/picture alliance

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili told DW on Wednesday that she still planned to veto the contentious "foreign influence" law that passed a third and final reading in parliament the previous day

Even though her veto can ultimately be overridden by another vote in parliament, Zourabichvili said that the law had become a "symbol of a number of laws and measures and rhetoric that is taking Georgia away from its European path," and that she therefore planned to veto it as such. 

Law 'taking Georgia away from its European path'

Government claims transparency the goal, president says law designed to discredit

The rule requires the media organizations, non-governmental organizations and other groups receiving more than one-fifth of their funding from outside Georgia register as "pursuing the interests of a foreign power."

Critics have called it a threat to domestic freedoms and the country's aspirations to join the European Union. The EU has warned it might freeze the country's accession process as a formal candidate member of the bloc, a status it was only granted recently, late last year. 

The rules have also drawn comparisons with changes introduced in Russia in recent years. Zourabichvili for her part said that it was "duplicating the Russian law." 

Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze meanwhile recently said that the plans were "solely aimed at promoting transparency and accountability." 

Zourabichvili disagreed, arguing that the funding of such groups was already tracked and was often a matter of public record. 

"It's not only requiring them to declare resources, which is done, it is requiring them to declare themselves as agents, as representatives of a foreign influence. And that is discrediting them in the eyes of the public opinion, if that were to happen," she said. 

She said the "whole civil society" had agreed that it was not willing to accept such a label. 

"They are not lobbies. They are members of this country, they are representing this country. The civil society in this country has been very vivid, very active, very influential, and very essential to the transition of this country towards democracy," she said.

'Why does it come back at a time when there is no need for it?'

Asked what the government's motivation might be in trying to introduce the law, Zourabichvili said that wasn't entirely clear to her.

"I don't know, you will have to ask them. Because last year, they introduced this law. It was protested also by a very large part of the population for the same reason. And they took this law away. And they promised the population, and our partners, that it was definitive — that this law would not be introduced any longer," she said. 

In the months after the law was floated and then taken back off the table last year, major progress in accession talks with the EU followed, briefly making it seem like the government was bowing to public opinion, with around 80% of Georgians thought to favor joining the EU.

"So why does it come back at a time when there is no need for it? No specific request from anyone. Suddenly, it's thrown in the middle of the public attention, together with the rhetoric," she asked. 

 Protesters gather during a rally against the controversial "foreign influence" bill in Tbilisi on May 14, 2024.
Major protests in Tblisi accompanied the final stages of the bill's passage in parliamentImage: GIORGI ARJEVANIDZE/AFP/Getty Images

The rhetoric she's referring to are comments from Prime Minster Kobakhidze and other members of the Georgian Dream party, not least its chairman, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who Zourabichvili described as the "de facto ruler of Georgia." 

She noted a speech from Ivanishvili on April 29, at the height of the public protests as the law was being prepared, "which is accusing our western and European partners of everything and nothing — and making conspiracy theories," as one of the more striking recent examples.

Ivanishvili had spoken of a Western "global party of war" that he alleged was meddling in Georgia and had treated Russian neighbors like Georgia and Ukraine as "cannon fodder" in recent years in a broader conflict with Moscow.

Will Georgia's foreign agent law endanger its EU candidacy?

With elections later this year, 'the population will have to say its word' 

The 72-year-old president, born in Paris to a family of Georgian refugees early in the Cold War, was the French Ambassador to Georgia before accepting Georgian citizenship and transferring into Tbilisi's government by mutual agreement in 2004.

She ran in the 2018 presidential election campaign as an independent but had set up a liberal party advocating closer ties with Europe earlier in her political career in Georgia.

Asked if she thought the EU warning of freezing the Georgian accession process would sway the Georgian Dream party, when the government says it's still seeking EU membership, she said she could not predict. 

"What I think is important is that the country continues on its path towards Europe," she said. 

"For that we have, very close at hand, in five months' time, elections. In those elections, the population will have to say its word, will have to confirm that what we want is Europe. And that is the best way to reject the laws that [do] not conform to our European path, and to set ourselves again on the road towards accession negotiations." 

DW's Phil Gayle conducted the interview.

Edited by: Louis Oelofse

Hallam Mark Kommentarbild App
Mark Hallam News and current affairs writer and editor with DW since 2006.@marks_hallam