Demonstrations involving around 10,000 demonstrators protesting a Russian-style “foreign agent” law took place on the streets of Tbilisi, capital of the Republic of Georgia, last week. They were met in front of the Parliament building by police who used water cannon and tear gas to disperse the crowd. The demonstrators responded with stones and, in some isolated cases, Molotov cocktails. In the end, the country’s ruling party, Georgian Dream, which is allied with Russia, conceded and withdrew the bill, at least for the time being.
It remains to be seen how long the retreat will last.
This incident is just the latest example of the complicated, often opaque methods pro-Russian actors are using to try to maintain influence abroad, particularly in countries that were once part of the Soviet Union.
A law based on the Russian model
The bill in question was not actually proposed by the ruling Georgian Dream Party, which was founded by and is still believed to be closely associated with Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Georgian billionaire who made much of his wealth in Russia in the 1990s. It was put forward by an “opposition” party, which has all the hallmarks of being created by the Georgian Dream to deflect criticism of a law that was almost certain to attract public outcry.
The methods were simple. In June 2022, three members of the ruling Georgian Dream party – Dmitry Khundadze, Sozar Subari and Mikhail Kavelashvili – announced that they were leaving the party to found a new movement called People Power. They claimed to be members of the opposition, but their public rhetoric and political positions remained fully consistent with Georgian Dream’s open criticism of Western-style liberalism and its emphasis on “traditional values”.
On February 14, 2023, “People Power” submitted a draft law on “Transparency of Foreign Influence” to the Georgian Parliament. The authors proposed creating a register of “foreign agents” in Georgia, which would include all non-profit legal entities and media companies that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad or otherwise face a fine of between 10,000 and 25,000 lari ($3,800 to $7,600).
People Power participants stressed that the aim of the law is to “inform” and not to restrict the activities of NGOs and the media. According to the authors, they wanted to ensure “transparency of foreign influence” in the country. In addition, they claimed to have used American experience in drafting the bill, namely the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
The US State Department disagreed.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the bill was “based on similar Russian and Hungarian laws, not FARA or any other American law.”
While US law requires lobbyists paid by foreign governments to disclose their sources of funding, it does not limit their right or ability to work on behalf of foreign interests. However, Russian law was mainly used as a tool of domestic repression, leading to editorially independent media outlets, including Voice of America, being labeled as “foreign agents”. The list also includes indigenous Russian civil society groups such as the “Soldier’s Mothers of Saint Petersburg,” which organized against the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014.
When the draft law was announced, the European Union quickly issued a formal statement stating that passage of the Foreign Agents Law would pose a serious obstacle to Georgia’s stated goal of becoming an EU member.
“The law in its current form risks a chilling effect on civil society and media organizations, with negative consequences for the many Georgians who benefit from its work,” said Josep Borrell, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy in an Am Statement released March 7. “This law is incompatible with EU values and standards. Its final passage may have serious repercussions on our relations.”
The “Georgian dream” is not a European dream
Although the pursuit of EU and NATO membership are enshrined in the Georgian constitution as goals to which the government in Tbilisi is committed, the ruling Georgian Dream party is widely suspected of taking measures that would prevent Georgia’s accession to both institutions .
“Unfortunately, when Georgia applied for candidate status in the EU, our authorities did everything possible to prevent this application from going ahead because they really didn’t want to make it,” said Salome Samadashvili, the political secretary of the opposition Lelo party news week.
Rather than openly pursuing pro-Russian initiatives, Georgian Dream has instead used the guise of legality, as was the case with the Foreign Agent Act, to implement policies that would delay or scupper the country’s western movement.
“More than 80 percent of Georgians want to go to Europe, join NATO and be part of the West,” Samadashvili said. “Politicians who openly support Russia don’t get more than two to three percent of the votes here. The people here are clearly anti-Russian. That’s why they camouflaged themselves, and unfortunately many people were deceived.”
“I think they have clear instructions not to get [European Union] Candidate status because it is not in Russia’s interest,” she added. “Russia wants the ‘Georgian dream’ to stay in power, already with an openly anti-European position.”
The growth of the protest movement
On February 28, a total of 63 Georgian media outlets issued a joint statement refusing to register as foreign agents if the bill actually goes through.
The Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, a group of Georgian NGOs, called the law “anti-democratic, unconstitutional, discriminatory towards civil society organizations and the media” and expressed concern that the debate on the law would harm Georgia’s European aspirations.
Discussion of the bill in Parliament on March 2 met opposition within the chamber itself, as opposition lawmakers used parliamentary procedures to prevent debate from continuing. A scuffle broke out in the chamber between supporters and opponents of the law.
That evening, a demonstration took place in Tbilisi, during which civil society activists and opposition figures blocked the entrances to the building where the parliament was sitting and chanted slogans such as “No to the Russian law!”.
Some protesters were briefly detained by police, and clashes broke out between protesters and police officers when protesters tried to block a police vehicle that was taking away one of the 36 detainees.