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Why Georgia's Government Is Trying (Again) To Introduce An Unpopular 'Foreign Agents' Law

Protesters brandishing a European Union flag are sprayed by a water cannon during clashes with riot police near the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi on March 7, 2023.
Protesters brandishing a European Union flag are sprayed by a water cannon during clashes with riot police near the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi on March 7, 2023.

TBILISI -- Georgia's opposition calls it the "Russian law." The ruling party insists the bill is simply copied and pasted from U.S. legislation.

But the newly resurrected On Transparency of Foreign Influence bill is, more than anything, a product of Georgia's homegrown struggle for political power. And its return bodes yet another bout of internal political strife, sharper pressure on the government's opponents, and yet more stress on Tbilisi's increasingly fragile relations with its Western partners.

On April 3, the ruling Georgian Dream party announced that it intended to reintroduce the law in parliament a year after large-scale protests forced the party to abandon its first attempt to pass the law. This year's bill would be identical to last year's, they said, except for one change: the term "foreign agent" would be replaced by the more circumlocutious "organization pursuing the interests of a foreign power."

Most Georgians thought that the "foreign agent" drama was behind them after Georgian Dream's humiliating setback last year.

The introduction of the bill just over a year ago shocked Georgians. Its requirements for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media to declare if they took a certain amount of funding from abroad drew immediate comparisons to the notorious "foreign agent" law in Russia, which has been used by the state to stifle dissent and silence media organizations.

European Union officials criticized the law as a restriction on speech and the media, and given the timing of when it was proposed -- amid a tense process of applying for candidacy in the EU -- the law seemed to be a deliberate sabotage of the country's European aspirations.

Opposition political parties and activist groups labeled it the "Russian law," an epithet that proved effective in getting a wide range of Georgians beyond the usual Tbilisi liberal middle class to take to the streets in March 2023 in protest. Georgian Dream tried to divert the criticism by introducing a second bill, reportedly copied word-for-word from the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, but to no avail.

After days of heated demonstrations -- epitomized by an iconic photo of a woman defiantly holding an EU flag against the onrushing torrent from a police water cannon -- the government retreated and withdrew both bills. It was a rare setback for the party, which has been in power since 2012 and has over those years steadily tightened its grip on every lever of power.

The conventional wisdom was that the party had learned from that debacle and would now be pursuing craftier means of silencing the opposition. So, besides the cosmetic surgery to excise the toxic "foreign agent" label, what has changed? And why might Georgian Dream think things will turn out differently for them this year?

For one, Georgia has already got the prize it was seeking from the EU: a formal invitation, in December 2023, to be a candidate. That decision has lowered the geopolitical stakes, and Georgian Dream leaders may think that with the country's European trajectory on course, at least for now, the protest mood will be considerably diminished from a year ago.

Gaining EU candidacy -- in spite of the government's half-hearted attempts to implement the reforms that Brussels had demanded -- also likely deepened party leaders' convictions that EU officials have a strong tolerance for less-than-democratic behavior. According to this logic, it is better to keep a troublesome Georgia inside their tent than outside, where it could more easily drift back into Russia's orbit.

That likely gave Georgian Dream confidence that they won't be punished for continuing to press on the opposition. Parliament speaker Shalva Papuashvili displayed this bravado when he was asked about the law's potential for slowing progress toward EU membership.

"The task isn't to move forward on the path of the European Union at all costs now, is it?" he replied. "Our task, the goal of the Georgian people, is to move forward in the European Union in such a way that we do not harm ourselves."

Another factor that has changed from last year: it is now election season. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for October, and while Georgian Dream is likely to face little serious resistance from a weak and splintering opposition, it is nevertheless taking no chances in making sure it maintains its firm grip on power.

The geopolitical rhetoric around the "foreign agent" laws aside, it was always about domestic politics. The NGO sector in Georgia is heavily dependent on funding from Western governments and institutions, and a handful of the organizations are persistent thorns in the side of Georgian Dream. Party officials also say that opposition politicians, via affiliated NGOs, are themselves indirectly funded by the West.

"We see how the inflow of nontransparent money increases in the run-up to the elections in Georgia, and the majority of these funds is directed to supporting radical parties, radical NGOs, and radical propagandist media," the party said in a statement accompanying the reintroduction of the bill.

Making the conversation about the funding of the opposition and opposition-friendly organizations could serve to reinforce in Georgian voters' minds the idea that these figures represent foreign, rather than domestic, interests.

Thirdly, it's also election season in the United States and the European Union. And so "Georgian Dream may think that Georgia is not a priority for the West, and that there will be less pressure," said Kornely Kakachia, the head of the Tbilisi think tank Georgian Institute of Politics. "And frankly speaking, they may be right."

Kakachia said that the reproaches from Western embassies appear to have become weaker recently. "The tone has changed significantly, and it seems the pressure on them was partially successful, and they don't want to antagonize Georgian Dream," he said.

Georgian Dream itself has praised the new U.S. ambassador for being less confrontational than her predecessor, who was a frequent target of the party for her criticisms. (The embassy did not respond to a request for comment by the time this piece was posted about whether they had changed their rhetorical approach.)

Party leaders have tried to mute criticism of the law by pointing out that many other countries, including democratic ones, have laws requiring transparency for foreign funding. Just days after Georgian Dream withdrew its "foreign agent" law in 2023, news broke that the EU itself was working on its own legislation to compel certain organizations with foreign funding to disclose it.

But in Georgia, the ruling party's openly stated intention to weaponize such a law against its political opponents has made it a deeply imperfect advocate for the cause of greater transparency. The EU, in a statement, expressed "serious concerns" about the reintroduction of the law. "Transparency should not be used as an instrument to limit civil society's capacity to operate freely," it said.

When an opposition deputy, in a discussion in parliament about the reintroduced law, called it the "Russian law," the speaker, Papuashvili, cut his microphone off. "This is anti-Georgian propaganda," Papuashvili said, adding that he would continue to turn off the microphone of any other deputy who used the phrase "Russian law."

"Don't lie to the Georgian people," he went on. "That worked for you last year, but it's not going to work this year."

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