A Threat to Freedom: The “Foreign Agent” Bill Casts a Shadow Over Georgia

Democracy is currently under threat in Georgia. The ruling political party, Georgian Dream, has set in motion, since the beginning of April 2024, a parliamentary process to adopt the so-called “Foreign Agents” Bill. This law would require nongovernmental organisations and independent media outlets to register in a governmental registry if they receive more than 20% of their annual funding from abroad. If this provision is implemented (with only one vote left, set for May 17th, before the bill is presented to President Salome Zourabichvili for final approval), all organisations receiving external support could be labeled as foreign agents. This means that NGOs would be put under tight scrutiny by the government, and their work would be severely circumscribed. Local civil society and youth activists have taken to the streets in protest, denouncing the party’s action and requesting the immediate halt of the legislative process. The international community, and especially the European Union and United States, has shown its discontent and criticised the situation, describing the law as contrary to democratic values and not representative of the will of the Georgian people.

The attempt to introduce the Foreign Agents Bill in Georgia’s legislation is far from a novel development. The Georgian Dream ruling party already tried to pass the law in March 2023, but was forced to abandon the project due to widespread demonstrations. The proposal was reintroduced this year, changing its name to “Bill on Transparency of Foreign Influence” but keeping its content intact. The bill, known in Georgia as the “Russian Law”, is based upon a similar provision adopted by the Kremlin in 2012 to crack down on opposition parties and any actors challenging the regime. The enforcement of such a law would have similar implications in Georgia, dealing a serious blow to the democratic nature of the state.

Analysts who reviewed the law say that the government would be allowed to thoroughly scrutinise NGO activities and their internal communications. This would prevent NGOs from holding Georgian administrations accountable for their decisions, and would obstruct efforts that support transparency, social services, and an independent press. Given these ominous implications, the heads of these NGOs fear the adoption of this bill. Manon Bokucava, head of Kvemo Kartli Media, an independent news outlet covering the southeastern part of the country, stated that, if the law is passed, it “can destroy all achievement toward democracy that we have in Georgia. […] No independent media will be able to operate under the label of a ‘foreign influence organisation’.” Ramini Matcharashvili, the director of the Batumi Independent Living Centre Board, an organisation working with disabled Georgians, said that “if these organizations [media outlets and other watchdog agencies] are no longer there, then it will be our turn. […] It will be impossible to continue working,” as reported in Eurasia.net.

The “Foreign Agents” Bill poses a serious threat to democracy in Georgia. It represents a blatant attack on civil society, the main actor responsible for keeping the government in check and ensuring it makes decisions based on the will of the Georgian people. Additionally, the law poses a direct challenge to the principles of the European Union, to which the Caucasian country has long wanted to join. It received candidacy status last December. Though Irakli Garibashvili, former Prime Minister and current Chairman of the Georgian Dream Party, reaffirmed that membership to the EU is still the government’s goal, the current situation is not fooling anyone in Brussels. The President of the European Council Charles Michel has condemned the decision to adopt the law, tweeting that “the draft Law on Transparency of Foreign Influence is not consistent with Georgia’s EU aspiration and its accession trajectory and will bring Georgia further away from the EU and not closer.” The United States has  expressed similar concerns, with a group of senators addressing a letter to Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze. They implored him to reconsider, so as not to undermine “Georgia’s transatlantic aspirations” and disregard the wishes of the Georgian people “who have made their voices heard, loud and clear, in support for a democratic and European future” for their homeland.

The Georgian Dream party appears determined to change Tbilisi’s geopolitical orientation. It intends to move away from the Western sphere of influence and drift back into Russia’s orbit. It is therefore not surprising that the Kremlin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have applauded the bill’s reintroduction. Moreover, the Party used Soviet-like practices in its rallies and rhetoric which accentuated this shift even more. Related to these developments is another disturbing implication: the willingness of the ruling party to do whatever it takes to remain in power, especially since parliamentary elections are taking place in autumn. The deployment of authoritarian methods, and the democratic backsliding that the bill’s adoption would entail, serve to further this objective.

Garibashvili and his party, however, have misread public sentiment in the country. They were gravely mistaken if they believed that no opposition would arise. Protests have been ongoing since the announcement of the introduction of this bill. Youthful activists are the driving force behind these rallies, displaying a strong determination to fight for their country’s democratic and European-oriented future. Even though the government has responded harshly to these demonstrations by employing police forces, teargases, and water cannons, civil society is determined to stand its ground. As Vladimer Mkervalishvili, head of Rights Georgia, has said, “We [believe] that we should fight, that the government should not pass this bill. Otherwise, we lose our sovereignty, our state, democracy, and everything.”

The fight for the future of Georgia is stronger than ever and will surely see freedom and justice prevail over authoritarianism and repression. The unwavering determination of its citizens to see their wishes respected is admirable. The unrelenting support provided by the international community offers a beacon of hope for the future. Even though the path ahead might be challenging, the desire for freedom in Georgia burns bright. There is a strong possibility that the Caucasian country will emerge even stronger from this struggle, a testament to the enduring power of a people united in the pursuit of a common democratic future.


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