Protests Grow Over Georgian Foreign Agents Law

Image – Nicolas Raymond

The Black Sea nation of Georgia has been gripped in political turmoil over the past month, with protests drawing tens of thousands of people in a country of just 3.7 million. At the center of the upheaval is the controversial Foreign Agents Law proposed by the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party in early April. The bill, reintroduced after being withdrawn last year amid significant criticism, would require independent organizations and media groups receiving more than 20 percent of funding from abroad to register as agents “pursuing the interests of a foreign power.”  A far cry from what has been perceived in Europe and the U.S. as a Westernizing society since its 2003 pro-democracy Rose Revolution, the legislation puts Georgia at a precipice.

While proponents claim the law will offer more oversight of internationally affiliated groups and individuals, civil society organizations and opposition parties have lambasted the bill as an attempt to undermine independent press and restrict political freedoms. Critics have been quick to point out the similarities between the proposed bill and a 2012 Russian law, which has been used by the Putin government to silence opposition and muzzle dissent.

Despite significant protests, the GD-controlled parliament approved the bill on Tuesday, May 14. Although a veto from the largely ceremonial independent President Salome Zourabichvili could delay the process, it is almost certain to be overridden by the GD’s parliamentary majority.

The bill has put Tbilisi at odds with the U.S. and E.U., as leaders from both condemn the move as fundamentally incompatible with democratic values. Georgia was granted candidate status for membership in the E.U. last December, however, Brussels has warned the bill presents an obstacle to future accession to the body.  U.S. Senators Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) penned a bipartisan letter warning that the passage of the law would have deep ramifications for U.S.-Georgian relations. Washington has threatened sanctions on GD party leaders and members, as well as limitations on U.S. aid to Georgia in response to the bill.

This potential watershed moment presents an opportunity for Russia, which benefits from any slide away from the U.S. and E.U. in neighboring Georgia. While GD leaders have insisted they are neither pro-Kremlin nor anti-Western, the Foreign Agents Law undeniably distances the country from its European aspirations. Similarly, GD party founder and Georgia’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s and retains ties with many of Russia’s business oligarchs. A former Prime Minister, Ivanishvili holds immense sway in the GD party and Georgia and is widely considered to be a key part of the reintroduction of the Foreign Agents Law.

The passage of the law comes months before the Oct. 26 elections, in which the GD will seek a fourth consecutive victory, while opposition parties attempt to dislodge them. Domestic power transfers in Georgia have often yielded political persecution and repression of the losers, sparking fears among both GD and opposition members about the consequences of a loss in the upcoming elections. Passage of the law may allow GD leadership to undermine their opponents and secure their own stability in a cutthroat political environment.

The bill has brought Georgia to a crossroads on what once seemed to be a clear path to westward integration. While the government may yet balk at the level of domestic and international pressure and rescind the law, GD party leaders seem intent on pushing the bill, irrespective of the consequences. The law seems poised to torpedo European and NATO integration and create a climate favorable to Russian influence. Without support from Brussels and Washington, Ivanishvili’s bloc could seek deeper ties with Russia, securing aid for the regime as it slides further from the democratic aspirations of the Rose Revolution.

Originally published Protests Grow Over Georgian Foreign Agents Law on by at Defense & Security Monitor

Originally published Defense & Security Monitor

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