Whose “Foreign Agent” Law? Georgians Reject a Russian Import

March 24, 2023
Photo credit: EvaL Miko / Shutterstock.com

Thousands marched in the streets of Georgian capital of Tbilisi in the second week of March chanting “I am Georgian, therefore I am European.” These were words that former Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania spoke before the Council of Europe in 1999 to voice Georgia’s EU aspirations and set its foreign policy agenda for years to come. Earlier this year, the current ruling majority jeopardized these ambitions when they presented a draft law requiring individuals working for certain NGOs, civil society organizations (CSOs), and media outlets to register as “foreign agents”.

In an indication of serious concern in Europe over this and other instances of democratic backsliding in Georgia, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock unexpectedly announced her first official visit to the country on March 22 and flew there the next day. “During my trip, I want to make it clear that Germany is fully committed to Georgia’s prospect of EU membership,” she explained. “We see the attempts to divert the country from the pro-European course that the overwhelming majority of Georgians want.”

The recent protests have shed light on a sharp divide between the Georgian government and people. The ruling party continues to backslide, echoing Russian propaganda and putting at risk Georgians’ constitutional right to pursue European integration. The Georgian people, as Baerbock implied, want to see their country prosper outside the Kremlin’s orbit.

The proposed law appeared to be modeled on a 2019 amendment to a Russian “foreign agents” legislation. When the ruling party, Georgian Dream (GD), rushed the draft law through the first step of the legislative process, Georgians responded immediately, organizing protests in the streets around the parliament building within hours.

In a win for the protesters, the parliament withdrew the draft law in the second reading. GD members abstained during that vote, but the party made it clear that they are not ready to relinquish power. They allowed the “foreign agent” law to be withdrawn not for ideological or political reasons, but simply to buy additional time to find a way to spin the defeat and avoid a major loss in next year’s elections.

In his first interview after the protests, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili claimed that demonstrators had been deceived and encouraged to act by extremist NGOs and Georgian opposition figures—supposed agents of the West. He went on to harshly criticize Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for supporting the rallies in Tbilisi, arguing that Ukrainians were meddling in Georgia’s domestic affairs with an ulterior motive: to “see [a coup] happen here”. At the same time, GD started a social media campaign called “Toward Europe with Dignity”, which accuses the “radical opposition” of misinforming Georgian society. In spreading anti-Western narratives, GD has followed the Russian rulebook on disinformation and attempted to shift the focus to external actors.

Georgia’s northern neighbor took note of the protests and responded unequivocally. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov downplayed the influence of Russia’s “foreign agents” law on GD’s draft legislation, placing the blame instead on the United States as a supposed “pioneer” of such laws. Well-known Russian propagandist Margarita Simonyan called Georgians a “temperamental” people, and threatened that “in the event of a repeat of [Russia’s military incursions into Georgia in] August 2008, no one will make a fuss over Georgia or send troops there, but they will simply shy right away.” At the same time, the Russian foreign ministry warned citizens not to travel to the Georgian capital or to the resort city of Batumi. Meanwhile, the official Twitter account of the ministry’s office in Crimea urged Georgians to #ThinkTwice. Referring to the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, it urged them to recall “a similar situation in Ukraine in 2014 and what it finally led to”.

Garibashvili’s interview also attracted the attention of Kremlin propagandists. Vladimir Solovyov was quick to support the Georgian prime minister’s claim that the West wants to see Russia’s attention divided by the opening of a “second front” in Georgia. In that spirit, GD members claimed that the part of the draft law targeting individuals was copied directly from the United States’ “Foreign Agents Registration Act” (FARA) of 1938, and that the West’s reaction was therefore hypocritical.

The essential differences between the Georgian and American versions easily debunk this claim. FARA aimed to protect the United States from the influence of Nazi propaganda, but Georgia is not facing an inflow of propaganda from the West that would threaten it in a similar way. In addition, FARA does not apply to NGOs, CSOs, or media outlets. Only 736 organizations are currently registered under FARA, and most of these are commercial or marketing and public-relations companies. The Georgian law would have affected not only NGOs, CSOs, and media outlets, but also ordinary citizens—especially young people who are involved in EU- or US-funded projects.

In Russia, the original 2012 law on foreign agents targeted NGOs, supposedly in the name of transparency. As a result, critical media were suppressed. In 2019, members of the state Duma voted in favor of expanding the law to include individuals. Like the Russian law on “foreign agents”, the Georgian version would entail severe consequences for the NGO sector and individuals who champion human rights and democratic values, and work toward the country’s European future. The term “agent” has a negative connotation and is equivalent to the term “spy” in Georgia and Russia. This means that individuals forced to register as agents of foreign influence are in effect enemies of the state—and of the ruling party. GD and the Putin regime have been consistently and harshly criticized by NGOs and CSOs that act as independent watchdogs of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. In both countries, the aim of the respective “foreign agent” laws was to discredit and silence them.

Since the restoration of its independence in 1991, Georgia has shown a persistent interest in transatlantic integration. The democratic reforms that followed the Rose Revolution of 2003 made the country a leader in fulfilling conditions for gaining EU membership candidate status. This standing was lost under the rule of GD, a party funded by oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili. Having made a fortune in Russia after the dissolution of Soviet Union, Ivanishvili has always advocated for restoring close cooperation between Tbilisi and Moscow.

Many Georgians fear that Russia is exploiting the current political scene in their country and promoting an anti-Western agenda, as some Georgian policies reflect. The country does not participate in sanctions against Russia in response to the invasion of Ukraine and, in fact, allows the transit of goods destined for Russia. The Kremlin may now be rewarding this behavior. Russian State Duma Deputy Leonid Kalashnikov recently announced that the two countries were on the verge of restoring direct flights and establishing a visa-free travel regime. Tbilisi Mayor and GD Secretary General Kakha Kaladze quickly welcomed the announcement, another sign of the split between the government officials and the majority of Georgians.

Western friends of Georgia and pro-integration Georgians alike were shattered by the news of GD’s Russian-style law, especially in light of Tbilisi’s application for EU membership, which was submitted in March 2022, a little over a week after Russia invaded Ukraine. Unlike Ukraine and Moldova, Georgia was denied candidate status due to its serious democratic backsliding and GD’s ties with Kremlin. Instead, the EU handed Tbilisi 12 recommendations to fulfill before it would review Georgia’s application again. The “foreign agents” law contradicts at least two of the EU recommendations. One calls on Tbilisi to create an accepting environment for free and independent media. Another urges the Georgian government to “ensure the involvement of civil society in decision-making processes at all levels”. Georgia’s European future depends on GD’s willingness to deliver on these recommendations. Almost 85% of Georgians favor EU and NATO accession. More to the point, these aspirations are written into the Georgian constitution, which states that “the constitutional bodies shall take all measures within the scope of their competences to ensure the full integration of Georgia into the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”

Georgians must ensure that official Tbilisi does not jeopardize the country’s EU bid. Georgian civil society should continue its work to raise awareness of the benefits to the country of becoming an EU candidate member. Moreover, it should continue to debunk anti-Western propaganda spread by Kremlin backup players.

On an international level, the EU must take action to support Georgians in their efforts to ensure their country’s eventual integration; an unstable neighbor with a fragile democracy poses an additional problem for the union. One way the bloc can provide support would be to impose sanctions against pro-Russian oligarchs and heads of the anti-Western organizations that continually destabilize the country. A Georgia free of Russia’s influence, one that pursues a path to transatlantic integration, would contribute to a stable, secure, and prosperous neighborhood in proximity to the EU.

The protests in Tbilisi served as an example of the impact generational shift can have on lawmakers. Many demonstrators were young people born after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This generation feels no sentimental attachment to the Russian-speaking world. For this new generation—the Georgian Gen Z—there is no more important goal than EU candidacy for their country. Almost 400,000 of these young people will be eligible to cast ballots for the first time in next year’s parliamentary elections. That raises hopes for Georgia’s European future.