Georgia debates a foreign agent law, which critics say sets a dangerous precedent

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Georgian parliament set to debate a proposed bill “on transparency of foreign influence,” similar to Russia's 2012 “foreign agent” law, which has been used to crush dissent and opposition. In Russia, according to OVD Info, an independent Russian human rights media project, 637 people have been classified as “agents,” which can restrict opportunities for national and international funding, making it easier for the state to punish critics, granting broad powers to the state in going after anyone engaged in broadly defined activities that “contradict the national interests of the Russian Federation,” to name a few.

The bill was tabled by a group of parliament members, formally from the ruling Georgian Dream who quit the party ranks last year and formed their own political party called People's Power in August 2022. It was then that the same group proposed the bill that if approved, will “compel foreign-funded non-governmental organizations to register as foreign influence agents,” reported Eurasianet.

The premise of the People's Power since its inception was a conspiracy theory — Georgia was being dragged into the war in Ukraine as part of a plan orchestrated with the help of the European Union, the opposition United National Movement, and Georgian civil society. The conspiracy theory was voiced at the time when the ruling Georgian Dream was facing “the biggest challenge to their ten-year rule” for failing “to secure EU candidate status,” reported OC Media. Georgia formally applied for EU membership in March 2022, following Russia's invasion of Ukraine — one day after Ukraine made its formal application. At the time, the move was described as a U-turn for the ruling Georgian Dream Party, which had previously insisted it would not accelerate its initial timeline of applying for membership in 2024. Pundits argued this shift was mainly driven by the series of protests that took place in the country as well as opposition pressure.

Georgia has been engulfed in a political crisis since October 2020, when opposition groups contested the results of parliamentary elections won by the ruling Georgian Dream Party. As such, once a frontrunner in EU integration, the country's internal political divisions have slowed down its prospects.

Since 2020, the country has witnessed a decline in press freedoms and numerous attacks on civil society, including the beating of journalists and the overall deterioration of its democracy.

“Wherever you look, the picture is bad: poor conduct of elections, the politicization of the judiciary, the way the authorities failed to prevent violence against journalists and Gay Pride organizers in Tbilisi, revelations about surveillance of EU diplomats,” wrote Tom de Waal, a Senior Fellow at Carnegie Europe and a long time observer of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.

But the situation only got worse when in July 2022, the Georgian Dream Party got into an “unprecedented sparring” between Georgia and its Western allies as the Georgian Dream Party began leveling accusations against US and EU diplomats in the country. From claims of interfering in Georgia's judiciary to accusations that the partners had played a negative role in the country's European Union accession plans, the spats triggered outrage and accusations in both Brussels and Washington.

Dimitri Khundadze, a former member of the ruling party, suggested the US was involved in the shady foreign financial transactions of former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, with the intention “to force Ivanishvili back into politics again” as well as to “involve the country into [the] war [in Ukraine],” reported OC Media at the time.

Ivanishvili is a key figure in Georgian politics. He made his fortune in the pre-Putin era in Russia and founded the Georgian Dream party in 2012. Although Ivanishvili publicly announced his decision to leave politics in 2021, some believe he still calls the shots behind the scenes.

Following Georgia's hasty decision to apply for EU membership, the country's application was deferred under the pretext that the country must fulfill a list of criteria before being considered as a candidate. The same month, the European Parliament adopted a resolution “on violations of media freedom and the safety of journalists in Georgia.” The document called on Georgian officials to impose personal sanctions on Ivanishvili “for his role in the deterioration of the political process in Georgia.” Accusations by Georgia officials were swift.

Georgia's Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, in a letter addressed to the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, criticized the resolution, and wrote that it was aimed “at discrediting the current system of governance in Georgia.”

The new bill submitted to the parliament shows that Gerogia is not only emulating the Kremlin through its disinformation tactics but also legislation, as the similarities between Georgia's proposed bill and the Russian foreign agent law are striking. The draft bill requires all media outlets in Georgia receiving more than 20 percent of foreign funding to register as “foreign agents” and report on their annual income. According to OC Media, “the law would likely apply to a majority of non-governmental organizations active in Georgia,” as well. The Russian bill, which has been through several iterations since 2012, also forces news platforms receiving foreign funding to disclose their annual budgets. In its most recent form, “the law expands the definition of foreign agent to a point at which almost any person or entity, regardless of nationality or location, who engages in civic activism or even expresses opinions about Russian policies or officials’ conduct could be designated a foreign agent, so long as the authorities claim they are under “foreign influence.” It also excludes “foreign agents” from key aspects of civic life,” wrote Human Rights Watch following the most recent changes to the law that went into force in December 2022.

Just like the law in Russia, which hands steep fines for failing to register as a “foreign agent,” the draft submitted to the parliament in Georgia also envisions steep fines.

The ruling party in Georgia, however, does not see any similarities. According to Irakli Kobakhidze, the head of the ruling Georgian Dream party, the draft bill is in “full accordance” with human rights standards “unlike its American [US Foreign Agents Registration Act] and Russian analogues.” US State Department disagreed. In a briefing on February 15, spokesperson Ned Price, said, “these statements that the Georgia draft law is based on FARA are patently false.”

The proposed bill comes just months after the EU recommended that Georgia speed up its reforms as per the list of criteria proposed by the EU. According to reporting by RFERL, “EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said [in September] Georgia needed to speed up reforms in areas such as the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and media freedom before it can be granted the status of a candidate for European Union membership.”

Over the course of last year, Georgian Dream drew public criticism for its tepid stance on Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The ruling government faced public criticism following the invasion for failing to release any strong-worded statements or criticism. The country also chose not to sanction Russia, while Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili went so far as to criticize the supply of arms to Ukraine. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Georgia “has emerged as a convenient logistics conduit between Russia and the outside world.” The bond was strengthened in January 2023, when Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, expressed hope that flights between the two countries would resume soon, a wish that was quickly echoed by the ruling Georgia Dream Party.

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