A Proposed Law Targeting ‘Foreign Interests’ in Georgia Riles the Opposition

Opponents of the measure, which resembles a Russian law that Moscow has used to crack down on dissidents, say it could undermine efforts for Georgia to join the European Union.

By Ivan Nechepurenko, featuring comments from Maxim Krupskiy, Former visiting scholar of the Russia and Eurasia Program at The Fletcher School 

For the past month, the Georgian capital of Tbilisi has been engulfed in turmoil. Protesters have taken to the streets of the city night after night. A fistfight broke out between legislators in the country’s Parliament. And over the weekend, there were clashes between police and protesters at a large demonstration in the center of the city.

The trigger for the unrest was a decision early this month by the governing party, Georgian Dream, to push a bill through Parliament that the pro-Western opposition believes could be used to crack down on dissent and hamper the country’s efforts to join the European Union.

The draft law would require nongovernmental groups and media outlets that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from foreign sources to register as organizations “carrying the interests of a foreign power” and provide annual financial statements about their activities. Violations would incur fines equivalent to more than $9,000.

The government backed down on a previous attempt to pass the law last year after facing massive protests, but this time appears determined to push it through Parliament.

The legislation resembles a similar measure that Moscow implemented in 2012 that has been used as a heavy-handed tool to stifle and stigmatize anti-Kremlin advocacy groups and media organizations. Critics say that one of the aims of the bill, which they call “the Russian law,” is to align Georgia, a former Soviet country of 3.6 million, more closely with Moscow.

Similar measures have been adopted by two other former Soviet nations, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Lawmakers will start debate Tuesday on the second of three votes on the bill. Protests have been intensifying ahead of the debate, and on Sunday thousands of protesters marched along Rustaveli Avenue, the main thoroughfare of Tbilisi, shouting “No to the Russian law!” At one point, a group of protesters clashed with the police, who used pepper spray to disperse them.

“Everything shows that this government is controlled by Putin,” Irakli Vachnadze, 59, an architect, said on a recent evening as he headed for a rally in front of the imposing Stalin-era building of the Georgian Parliament.

Mr. Vachnadze’s views are common among the protesters and other critics of the law in Georgia. But experts say they think it is unlikely that Russia has pushed for the law and that it is mainly aimed at strengthening the hand of Georgian Dream, which has called for a more conciliatory approach to Moscow with regard to the war in Ukraine.

More than 450 Georgian NGOs and media organizations have signed a petition against the law, including the Georgian branches of the corruption watchdog Transparency International and the Save the Children charity. 

The government — which has been controlled by Georgian Dream since 2012 — says the bill is simply a measure aimed at making foreign funding more transparent. The party says the legislation was modeled on an American law dating to 1938 and other similar measures passed or proposed by European and other Western countries.

The first draft of the new bill was approved by lawmakers on April 17. The bill is unlikely to be signed into law before the end of May because legislators will probably have to override an expected veto by the country’s president, Salome Zourabichvili. Ms. Zourabichvili, whose duties are largely ceremonial in Georgia’s parliamentary system, was endorsed by Georgian Dream when she was elected in 2018 but she later became a fierce critic of the ruling party.

Georgian Dream says it wants Georgia to be in the European Union and NATO, but has argued for a more neutral approach to Russia and has accused the opposition of playing a dangerous game of provoking Moscow that risks having the war in Ukraine spread to Georgia.

On Monday, the government gathered tens of thousands of its supporters in front of the Parliament building in central Tbilisi. In a rare public speech, Bidzina Ivanishvili, a former prime minister and oligarch who is a senior but unofficial leader of Georgian Dream, accused pro-Western organizations of attempting to hijack the Georgian state in order to drag the country into a war with Russia.

“Georgia must be ruled by a government that was elected by Georgians,” Mr. Ivanishvili told the crowd.

Maksim Samorukov, a fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said he believed it was unlikely that the government acted at the behest of the Kremlin. The opposition was probably using that accusation as a way of undermining the ruling party, he said.

But, Mr. Samorukov said, the public backlash against the law was understandable.

“Such laws are passed in countries where governments have been in power for too long,” Mr. Samorukov said. He added that it could be used as “a very convenient instrument” allowing the government “to frame any opposition as agents of malicious foreign influence.”

The draft legislation has drawn sharp criticism from E.U. and U.S. officials, who said it renewed questions about democracy in Georgia and the country’s commitment to join the European Union. In December, the European Union granted Georgia candidate status, a move widely seen as an effort to prevent the country from sliding into the Kremlin’s orbit.

Similar legislation targeting foreign influences has been introduced by the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, two other post-Soviet countries, in the past two years, raising concerns about the region drifting toward Moscow. A law curbing foreign influence has also been passed in Hungary, and proposed by Slovakia and the predominantly Serb area of Bosnia, the Republika Srpska.

Maxim Krupskiy, a U.S.-based lawyer who has been studying the foreign agents law in Russia, said the Russian law and the proposed bill in Georgia were markedly different from measures adopted in the West. In the United States, for example, he said, the government needed to prove that an “agent” was acting under the instruction of a foreign power or individual.

“You cannot become an agent simply by receiving funds from abroad,” Mr. Krupskiy said. “If you do get registered as a foreign agent, you can also fight it in an independent court,” he said. He added that in Russia there had not been a single case since 2012 in which a court had overturned the government’s designation of an organization as a foreign agent.

Georgia straddles a region that for centuries has been the arena for a geopolitical tug of war between Russia, Turkey, Western states and Iran. The war in Ukraine has exacerbated Georgia’s already polarized internal politics.

Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze has been a major supporter of the foreign influence bill and has also angered the opposition by refusing to impose sanctions on Russia for the war in Ukraine. 

In March 2023, when the Georgian government made its first attempt to promote the foreign influence bill, it led to a wave of protests that rocked Tbilisi. 

The government’s determination to push the draft bill again, a little over a year after its first attempt had failed so spectacularly, reflects a broad geopolitical shift, said Armaz Akhvlediani, an independent lawmaker in the Georgian Parliament.

He said he believed the government felt it had more space to act now, with the war in Ukraine raging, and was preparing in case Mr. Putin’s influence grew in the region.

Ms. Zourabichvili, the president, has said she is convinced that Georgian Dream had proposed the bill under pressure from Moscow and that she would cast a veto as soon as the draft law was approved by Parliament.

In a post on the social media platform X, she said “Georgia will not surrender to resovietisation!” However, the governing party has enough votes to override her veto.

The government has also been actively engaged in countermessaging. Bus stops across Tbilisi have been plastered with posters saying the draft law has nothing to do with Russia and would bring Georgia closer to the European Union.

Paata Zakareishvili, a former minister who has since parted ways with Georgian Dream, said that the government “cannot get over the defeat from last year” and that this time it “knew what it would have to deal with.” He said he was worried that this latest effort could sink his country’s E.U. ambitions.

“They do everything to make sure Europe rejects Georgia,” he said.

(This post is republished from The New York Times.)

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