In Georgia, the government is looking at the Russian playbook while the population is aiming for EU membership

Supporters of Georgian opposition parties take part in the opposition rally n front of the Parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia, 09 March 2023.
© EPA-EFE/ZURAB KURTSIKIDZE   |   Supporters of Georgian opposition parties take part in the opposition rally n front of the Parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia, 09 March 2023.

Daruieste Viata

The Georgian Dream suffered a rare setback in early March when it withdrew a bill on "foreign agents" that had already passed the first reading in parliament. The decision was preceded by two days of protests, which were severely suppressed by the police. Nevertheless, the protesters succeeded – for now. The ruling party promises that when the "emotional background" subsides, politicians will once again try to explain to the citizens of Georgia "why it was important to ensure the transparency of foreign influence in the country".

The Georgian Dream was forced to back down following mass protests

The law, which the opposition and civil society called an analogue of the Russian law on foreign agents, was adopted in the Georgian parliament in the first hearing on March 7. The decision to submit the controversial bill to a plenary vote was taken suddenly, two days earlier than announced (before that, the ruling party had said that the initiative would be considered only on March 9). Seventy-six deputies voted "for", thirteen "against," and four abstained. Commenting on the results of the vote, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, who was on a visit to Germany, noted that now the future of Georgia "will no longer belong to agents of a foreign country". According to the prime minister, many Georgian NGOs "held anti-government rallies with funds received from abroad" and "arranged provocations that did not meet national interests".

A large-scale protest immediately began on the square in front of the parliament. Opposition leaders urged their supporters to take to the streets, and tens of thousands did just that, waving  Georgian and EU flags and posters saying "No to the Russian law". The protesters soon clashed with the police. Special Forces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs used water cannons and tear gas to disperse the protesters. The day after the first mass protest against the new law, on March 8, party chairman Irakli Kobakhidze said that "without state protection from spy plans, Georgia will not become a member of the European Union and it will lose its sovereignty".

"We will go forward with Christianity to Europe! We will move forward with sovereignty towards Europe! We will worthily move forward towards Europe" Kobakhidze said, in line with the policy of the Georgian Dream, combining rhetoric about traditional values with assurances of loyalty to the European course of Georgia. But after two days of large-scale protests, the ruling Georgian Dream party had to abandon its intentions because there were more protesters on the streets of Tbilisi than policemen, and they were not going to retreat. As a result, the ruling party in Georgia had to make a joint statement in which they announced that they were temporarily abandoning bill.

"As a ruling force responsible to every member of society, we have decided to withdraw the bill we supported without any preconditions" the party said in a statement. On March 10, the Georgian parliament "failed" in the second reading of the draft law on foreign agents, satisfying the demand of tens of thousands of protesters who had staged large-scale demonstrations in the center of Tbilisi, as well as in other cities of Georgia, for several days. Another, alternative draft law "On the registration of foreign agents" was withdrawn by the initiators - a group of anti-Western deputies united in the "Power of the People" movement.

Thus, the bills on foreign agents were cancelled through official procedures, as the protesters demanded.

“We see that the adopted bill has caused controversy in society. The lie machine was able to present the bill in a negative light and mislead a certain part of the population”, the parliamentary parties said in a joint statement quoted by Rustavi 2 TV channel. According to representatives of the ruling party, the draft "was labeled falsely as a 'Russian law', and its adoption in the first reading was presented in the eyes of a part of the public as a departure from the European course". Observers agree that two factors stopped the authorities from passing the bill - the protests, which they could not control, and pressure from the West.

The bill was proposed by the anti-Western movement Power of the People. The Georgian authorities have declared their support for the bill

The draft law "On Transparency of Foreign Influence" was submitted to the Georgian Parliament on February 14, 2023 by the "Power of the People" movement. The movement consists of deputies who formally left the ruling party in June 2022 and said they were leaving the party “to speak more”. Former members of the ruling party claim to be in opposition, but their rhetoric are fully consistent with the line of the Georgian Dream and is based on anti-Western politics. The ruling party denies any involvement in the creation of the Forces of the People, but they do not hide the fact that their views are close.

The authors of the bill wanted to create a register of "foreign agents" in Georgia, which would list all non-commercial legal entities and media outlets that are financed by more than 20% from abroad. In addition to current reporting to the tax inspectorate, such organizations would be required to annually submit a separate financial declaration to the National Public Registry Agency - the same agency will have to compile lists of “foreign agents”. For evasion of registration, according to the authors of the project, the media and NGOs are required to pay an administrative fine in the amount of 10 to 25 thousand lari, or from 3.8 to 7.6 thousand dollars. But even after that, the “foreign agent” would still have to register in the registry.

The Power of the People participants emphasized that the purpose of their proposed law was only to “inform”, and not to restrict the activities of NGOs and the media. In addition, they claimed that they used the American experience in the development of this bill, adapting and softening it for Georgia.

The US State Department disagreed with this statement, and its spokesperson Ned Price said that in fact the bill "is based on similar Russian and Hungarian, and not on FARA or any other American law".

In response to criticism from the State Department, Power of the People representatives noted that their bill is much softer than the American counterpart. For example, in American and Russian laws, such a "rude term" as "foreign agent" is used. The Georgian project, in turn, "establishes not a crude, but an adequate term" - "agent of foreign influence."

However, on February 22, Power of the People announced a second bill on the same topic - this time a complete analogue of the American FARA. On February 21, the Bureau of the Georgian Parliament registered the "Georgian" version of the bill, and on February 27 - the "American" one, and submitted them for consideration by the legal committee.

On the same day, February 27, the ruling party announced that it would support both the “Georgian” and “American” bills in the first reading, after which the documents would be sent for examination to the Venice Commission. This was announced by the chairman of the "Georgian Dream" Irakli Kobakhidze. He assured that one of these projects would in any case be adopted as a law. The chairman of the Georgian Dream also said that comparing both bills with the Russian one is unacceptable. According to him, the “Georgian” version was developed by the “Power of the People” independently, and the “American” is a translation of FARA.

Representatives of the Georgian media and NGOs said that both versions of the bill could become an instrument of pressure on critics of the authorities, and in the future the law could, following the example of Russia, be turned into an instrument of repression.

In Russia, the Law on Foreign Agents refers to amendments to the Law on Non-Commercial Organizations adopted in 2012. According to them, the status of a "foreign agent" was assigned to Russian non-profit organizations (NPOs) receiving "money and other property from foreign states, international and foreign organizations, foreign citizens and stateless persons." When these amendments were adopted in Russia, Vladimir Putin also said that Moscow followed the example of the United States in this. However, in the US, “foreign agents” include those who are directly controlled or controlled by a foreign government or organization, while in Russia, to obtain this status, it is enough to receive a foreign grant or foreign transfer. Since 2021, the law has been widely used against journalists and non-governmental organizations that criticize the Russian authorities as a repressive measure.

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili, who for a while now has been departing more and more from the rulling party’s official stance,  also spoke out against the bill. The head of state hinted at some demarche, saying that it was no coincidence that the initiation of the controversial bill coincided with the expected assessment of Georgia's success in implementing the recommendations of the European Commission. On February 28, Zurabishvili stated: “I will not go into discussion of this law. I'll veto!"

And on March 2, the head of state reminded the supporters of the bill that the importance of Georgia's accession to the European Union and NATO is spelled out in the country's Constitution: “The country's supreme law obliges the constitutional bodies to take all measures to ensure Georgia's full integration into the European Union. Full integration into the European Union and the North Atlantic Organization is the goal proclaimed by the Constitution of Georgia.”

The Law on Foreign Agents called into question the European future of Georgia

Shortly after the bill was registered in the Georgian parliament, on February 27, the rapporteurs of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on Georgia, Claude Kern and Edith Estrella, called on the Georgian deputies to reject it. They said the document "raises a number of concerns about its compatibility with democratic and human rights standards."

The United States have also expressed concern about the bill. US State Department spokesman Ned Price said that the US is "concerned about the possible consequences of the passage of the law for freedom of speech and democracy in Georgia." Price later stressed that "Whoever votes for this bill will be responsible for the potential threat to the Euro-Atlantic future" of the country.

The draft law on "foreign influence" approved in the first reading by the Georgian Parliament was also criticized in Brussels. The head of European diplomacy Josep Borrell said that the document is incompatible with the values ​​and standards of the EU. And also that it contradicts Tbilisi's stated goal of joining the European Union. Representatives of Georgian NGOs also stated that the draft law contradicts Georgia's aspiration to join the EU. In a joint NGO statement, the discussion itself "damages Georgia's European perspective" because it will prevent the country from fulfilling two of the conditions the European Commission said that the country has to meet in order to get candidate status for EU membership. According to condition 7, Georgia undertakes to “make more active efforts to ensure a free, professional, pluralistic and independent media environment”. Condition 10 states that the Georgian government will ensure "the involvement of civil society in decision-making processes at all levels."

Many experts are sure that it was the unambiguous messages of the West that made the Georgian Dream retreat from the adoption of the bill in the Georgian Parliament. The night before the bill was withdrawn, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili received a call from Washington. Derek Chollet, chief policy adviser to the head of the US State Department, spoke with Garibashvili "about the protests and the 'foreign agents' bills that run counter to the Georgian people's aspirations for European integration and democratic development," according to a tweet.

After the withdrawal of the bill, the State Department not only stated that they were happy about this event, but also warned the Georgian authorities: “We call on the ruling party to officially cancel the bill and not to introduce this kind of legislation anymore. Precisely because it is incompatible with Georgian and Euro-Atlantic values ​​and the protection of fundamental freedoms”. At the same time, Georgian experts note that the adoption of the law on foreign agents in the first reading should be considered in the context of the ongoing huge polarization of politics and the media in Georgia, which has been going on for the past two years. Because of this, there is a real threat that Georgia will eventually not get the status of an EU candidate and that the European issue will become the subject of polarization in the 2024 parliamentary election campaign. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the law is now withdrawn. More than 70 percent of Georgians support joining the EU, and after the outbreak of Russia's war against Ukraine, this already high figure has only grown.

Russian trail of Georgian law

According to expert Giorgi Arziani, the Kremlin's involvement in the adoption of the law on foreign agents in Georgia is shown by the reaction of Russian officials and propaganda journalists who widely commented on the protests in Tbilisi and pointed to the negative consequences after its repeal.

Russian State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin accused the US of preventing Georgia from becoming a "sovereign country" after the ruling Georgian Dream party withdrew the bill. The speaker of the Lower House of the Russian Parliament voiced a conspiracy theory that behind all the "color revolutions" lies the shadow of the United States. Volodin said that any state that disagrees with "American exceptionalism" and the rules dictated by Washington is in danger of getting a coup.

And Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova ridiculed the EU for criticizing the law.

Kremlin propagandist Margarita Simonyan issued a veiled threat to destroy Tbilisi, saying the protesters, by calling for the de-occupation of Georgian territories, showed they wanted to open a "second front" against Russia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov compared the events in Georgia to the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv in 2013-2014, when these led to the ouster of Ukraine's corrupt pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. This angered Moscow, culminating in the illegal annexation of Crimea and fueling a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Such a large-scale reaction to the events unfolding in Georgia, according to Giorgi Arziani, may indicate that Moscow itself was actually involved in pushing the Russian-style law.

“Indeed, the events associated with the proposed bill are somewhat similar to the persecution of Ukraine in 2013. Then the Ukrainian government was forced to announce its decision to suspend preparations for signing an Association Agreement with the EU, which Russia feared could move Ukraine further away from Russian influence in favor of a similar agreement with Russia. It appears that the legislation on foreign agents was intended to create a stalemate in the increasingly complex process of Georgia's European integration. Moreover, Georgia's compliance with the EU recommendations will be assessed this autumn.”

The Georgian Dream say that they do not completely abandon the bill and are conducting a campaign to discredit the protesters

Commenting on the cancellation of the draft law on foreign agents, the ruling Georgian Dream party noted with regret that "the bill has caused controversy in society":

“The lie machine was able to present it in a negative light and mislead a certain part of the population. The bill was labeled falsely as Russian law, and its first reading was presented in the eyes of part of the public as a departure from the European course. In addition, the radical forces managed to involve some of the youth in illegal activities.”

The party assured that "they should be most attentive to peace, tranquility and economic development in Georgia, as well as to its advancement along the path of European integration", in connection with which such a difficult decision was made. In addition, Georgian Dream announced that it would better explain to the public what the law was intended for and why it was important to "ensure transparency of foreign influence."

To do this, they will inform the public about "every single detail of this matter." It is to be feared that, despite the repeal of the law, sentiment against foreign influence will remain.

In fact, the Georgian Dream suggests that the party will not abandon its initiative, despite the withdrawal of the bill.

“As the emotional background subsides, we will better explain to the public why the bill was passed and why it was important to ensure the transparency of foreign influence in our country,” it says.

At the same time, the ruling party launched a serious information campaign to discredit the participants in the peaceful protest in Tbilisi. Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of Georgian Dream, said that some forces spreading the ideas of liberal fascism tried to draw Georgian youth into the protests.

“Along with the United National Movement (an opposition party founded by ex-President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili), Girchi – More Freedom, The Time Has Come, and the Shame Movement, the activities of the Franklin Club were revealed last week. The Franklin Club is an agent of foreign influence funded by hundreds of thousands of lari and supported by the American organization Atlas Network, which in the past has organized non-violent and violent protests in many countries of the world, and has also actively worked on Brexit, i.e. separation of the UK from the European Union”.

At the same time, many experts note that the Georgian parliament did not reject the bill on agents of foreign influence, it "did not adopt it", which means that within a month the initiators of the bill can again put it on the second reading. To reject the bill, 58 deputies had to vote against, but only 38 did that. At the plenary session on Friday, March 10, 35 deputies voted against, one in favor. A total of 112 deputies attended the session.

According to Article 112 of the Rules of Procedure of the Parliament of Georgia:

<...> 16. A bill that does not receive the number of votes necessary for its adoption during the voting in the second reading is considered not adopted, and a resolution is issued that the bill was not adopted in the second reading.

  1. If the bill, which was not adopted in the second reading at the plenary session of the Parliament, is not, at the request of its initiator, put to a vote at the plenary session within 1 month of the session period, it is considered rejected. A draft law that does not receive the required number of votes again is also considered rejected. In this connection, experts note that only if the bill is not submitted for the second reading again within a month, the initiative can be considered canceled completely.

Political scientist Gia Nodia notes that the cancellation by the authorities of plans to adopt a law on foreign agents is a "victory of the people." Nevertheless, according to the expert, the leadership of the country remains problematic, because they considered the adoption of such a law acceptable, being aware of its consequences, i.e. suspension of the country's European integration and complications in relations with Western partners, which Georgia's partners have directly stated.

“The people have triumphed over Russian law. But the pro-Russian government still remains at the head of the country. Defeating her is a much more difficult task, ”says Nodia.

Observers agree that, ironically, the outcome of last week's events may actually have a positive impact on Georgia's chances of obtaining EU candidate status. The people's victory over the pro-Russian law may also be indicative of Russia's diminished ability to intimidate its neighbors into advancing the Russian agenda in domestic politics. It may also mean that the growing intolerance of the Georgian people and Western partners towards the events that culminated in last week's protests inspires hope and optimism that Georgia's stalled democracy-building process can resume.


Diana Shanava

Diana Shanava

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