Georgia draws criticism and protests as government debates the foreign agent bill

Collage by Arzu Geybullayeva. Photos courtesy of OC Media. General Secretary of Lelo for Georgia party, Mr. Irakli Kupradze depicted in photo (left). Used with permission.

Thousands of Georgians have taken to the streets to protest the controversial foreign agent bill tabled last year but re-introduced by the ruling Georgian Dream Party on April 3, 2024. Pundits say the Georgian Dream Party is steadily derailing their country's path to European Union accession. After three days of large-scale protests and domestic and international criticism, the draft bill passed the first reading at the parliament. Meanwhile, party officials lashed out at local civil society groups, accusing them of attempting to overthrow the government.

How it started

On April 3, Georgian Dream's parliamentary leader, Mamuka Mdinaradze, announced their decision to reconsider a bill on foreign agents. In a statement shared on Facebook, the ruling party claimed the law “will protect Georgia from artificial attempts to cause unrest in the country.”

Last year, when the ruling party announced its decision to adopt the bill, it was met with outspoken public outcry as well as international criticism, as similar bills in other countries have jeopardized the work of non-governmental organizations and civil society groups.

If approved, the bill was going to “compel foreign-funded non-governmental organizations to register as foreign influence agents,” reported Eurasianet.

Members of the ruling party claim the law is based on US legislation known as FARA — the US Foreign Agent Legislation Act. However, analysis of the draft text shows this is not the case. In an assessment published last year, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) said the draft bill was “fundamentally different” with “very distinct purpose and scope.”

If anything, the proposed bill is strikingly similar to Russia's 2012 “foreign agent” law, which has infamously been used to crush dissent and opposition in Russia since it came into force. 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 and donor sources.

According to local outlet 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 Russia in December 2022.

As such, international experts disagree with the ruling government in Georgia that the bill resembles EU and US legislation. In his comparative analysis between the draft Georgian bill and FARA for, international lawyer Ted Jonas highlighted key differences between the US bill and the proposed Georgian bill, namely, the historical context and the definition of who is and is not a foreign agent.

“One of the most fundamental differences between the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) and the proposed Georgian foreign agents law is the historical context in which the two laws originated and who they were directed against. The US Congress adopted FARA in 1938 specifically to target lobbying and consulting firms acting on behalf of the Nazi German government. Concern about Soviet Communist agents also motivated the law,” explained Jonas. Unlike FARA, the draft bill introduced by the ruling party mentions only “US and EU funding for Georgian NGOs as the source of foreign agents in Georgia.”

According to the text of the draft bill, a foreign agent can be a company, foundation, or individual receiving more than 20 percent of funding from a foreign power. FARA describes a foreign agent “as any person (legal or physical) who is under the control of, or acts at the direction of, a foreign power and acts in the interests of that foreign power,” explained Jonas in his analysis.

There is a striking difference between who FARA does not consider a foreign agent: “humanitarian aid organizations, persons and organizations engaged in religious, scholastic, academic, scientific or fine arts, media organizations with foreign ownership whose policies are not directed by a foreign power, US allies.” The Georgian bill would classify all the previously mentioned groups as foreign agents. 

How it is going

On April 15, the Georgian Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee voted to advance the bill. The same day, protesters started trickling in from the morning hours, reaching thousands by mid-morning and steadily growing throughout the day. By the evening, thousands gathered around the parliament building despite police attempts to cordon off the area.

Inside the parliament, a fistfight between the leaders of the opposition Citizens Party and the ruling party ensued, with the former’s leader, Aleko Elisashvili, punching the latter’s leader, Mamuka Mdinaradze, in the face. The scuffle led to the abrupt end to the live stream of the committee session.

During the discussion, some members of the opposition parties walked out in protest or were removed by force after opposing the draft bill, according to reporting by OC Media.

Public outcry outside the parliament building continued over the next two days and even reached other cities in Georgia beyond the capital, Tbilisi, where the government is located.

The government also banned online media outlets from entering the building of the parliament to cover the committee session.

On April 17 the draft bill passed its first round of readings. Now, the bill must go through two more parliamentary readings. The date for the second reading is yet to be announced and will likely be a lengthy process, according to the Social Justice Center’s director for democracy and justice, Guram Imnadze. Speaking to OC Media, Imnadze said the parliament is restricted to readings once every other week, which would extend the discussions and the potential enactment date until June.

The president of Georgia, Salome Zourabichvili, who has been a vocal critic of the bill since its inception last year, has the right to veto the law; however, the national parliament can still override the presidential veto. The president affirmed she would veto the law in an interview with the BBC on April 17, in which she said: “I am indeed going to veto this law as I vetoed all the other laws because that is not the only one [but] a whole strategy that goes against the recommendations of the European Union.”

Separately, Georgia’s President Salome Zourabichvili described the party as “Russia’s Dream” as the party has adopted a strong pro-Russian stand over the last two years, especially since Russia invaded Ukraine.

The President's criticism of the draft bill landed her in the crosshairs of the ruling party. On April 17, Prime Minister Irali Kobakhidze called the president an “agent of foreign influence.”

Local and international criticism

Meanwhile, a US State Department spokesperson said in a press briefing on April 10 that the MPs voting in favor of the bill may face possible sanctions.

In total, 83 lawmakers from the ruling party voted in favor of the bill in its first reading. In a statement issued on April 17,  U.S. State Department Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel said United States was “deeply concerned” over the draft bill as it would “stigmatize civil society organizations working to improve the lives of Georgian citizens and media organizations operating within Georgia to provide information to Georgian citizens.”

Georgian Dream called threats of sanctions blackmail.

A group of former Georgian diplomats released a joint statement condemning the bill and accusing the ruling Georgian Dream of sabotaging the country's path toward EU accession. Similar sentiments were reflected in a joint statement issued by the EU High Representative Joseph Borrell and Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi.

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