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Exiled Journalist Warns Georgia's 'Foreign Agents' Law Is 'First Step On Road To Repression'

Yekaterina Kotrikadze fled Russia along with her journalist husband, Tikhon Dzyadko, after she criticized Russia's 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine in a commentary on TV Dozhd.
Yekaterina Kotrikadze fled Russia along with her journalist husband, Tikhon Dzyadko, after she criticized Russia's 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine in a commentary on TV Dozhd.

Yekaterina Kotrikadze is a longtime Georgian-Russian journalist and host whose life has been steeped in issues of Russian national security and its effects on domestic policy from an early age.

She was just a teenager when, in 1999, her mother was killed in an unexplained explosion under their home at 19 Guryanov Street in Moscow. Her mother was one of around 300 people who died in a series of explosions at apartment blocks in the capital and two other major cities that alarmed Russians and, along with armed incursions in the southern region of Daghestan, were blamed on Chechen separatists and thus helped spark the Second Chechen War.

Years later, amid a career that included stints at public and private media in Russia and Georgia, Kotrikadze was a prominent journalist for the independent TV Dozhd. In August 2021, Dozhd was designated by Russia's Justice Ministry as a "foreign agent," which meant, among other restrictions, it had to publish disclaimers alongside its content informing the audience of the media company's status.

She and her journalist husband, Tikhon Dzyadko, fled the country after she criticized Russia's 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine in a commentary on TV Dozhd that played a part in Russia's subsequent ban on the station.

Kotrikadze spoke with RFE/RL's Georgian Service about years of fear and official retribution brought on by Russia's "foreign agent" law, especially in light of progress last week by the ruling Georgian Dream party to introduce similar legislation despite fierce public opposition and street protests.

She called such a law "the first step on the long road to repression" and described how Russian officials tightened the noose. She argued that the same threat now hangs over Georgia, and she called the bill to combat "foreign influence" an "attempt to shift Georgia from a pro-Western course to a pro-Russian one."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RFE/RL: As it has pushed a second time for passage of the "foreign agents" draft law, Georgia's ruling party assures Georgians that it serves democracy and transparency, that people should know where or how this or that organization is financed. But the dangers of such a law are best illustrated by the experience in Russia, where you've already been designated a "foreign agent" twice -- first as a Dozhd TV journalist.

Yekaterina Kotrikadze: When the Russian government started this campaign [in 2012] -- declaring legal and natural persons "foreign agents" -- it had the same appearance as it does now in Georgia. "Don't worry, it won't stop you from working in any way, you'll just be held accountable. It's just a formality to ensure transparency. After all, look who first started exposing 'foreign agents,' [look at] whose practice is our model: America!" [Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman] Maria Zakharova told us. She still regularly returns to this topic and tells us this in all seriousness. A few months ago, [Russian President] Vladimir Putin didn't bat an eye as he said the legislation on foreign agents is more liberal in Russia than in America.

This is, of course, surprising, because the status of such an agent in Russia is a black mark. If you are a foreign agent, you can't work. There are very specific restrictions -- for example, you can't deliver lectures. There are many areas where you can't be engaged because you are a foreign agent. This is spelled out. There are many areas in which you can't work, because there's an unspoken agreement not to employ "foreign agents" in Russia.

I'm absolutely sure that the vast majority of people who are currently designated as "foreign agents" would be in prison if they were in Russia. I'd be doing time, to say nothing of Tikhon Dzyadko, who is the editor in chief of TV Dozhd and my husband. Others too. A second administrative case has been initiated against me and [Dzyadko]...and I know that administrative cases have been initiated against my colleagues because we don't mark [our publications with the "foreign agents" disclaimer, as prescribed by Russian law]. After two administrative cases, a criminal case can be initiated. We're awaiting it from afar, in absentia, but it will happen.

In short, "foreign agent" status is by no means a formality -- especially since we see that Georgian government is going the way of Russia and not America, unfortunately. This is the first step on the long road to repression. This is the first step toward becoming a state in which journalists, in time, will have no opportunity to express their opinion. Nongovernmental organizations will have no right to work where their rights are not protected, where there is no alternative vision...[and] where the machine of repression goes around nodding people's heads for them. I really very much don't want this to happen in Georgia.

RFE/RL: Early in 2021, when TV Dozhd was [still based in Russia and was] designated a "foreign agent," I got the impression that there was still some hope that you could survive this designation. Yes, it's unpleasant; yes, you have to prove you're not a camel; yes, you have to include a disclosure on published materials that you're an "agent"; but it seemed that if you followed the obligations and didn't violate the law, you wouldn't be banned from working. Did you ever imagine that things would come to this?

Kotrikadze: You have the right impression. On the day we were declared "foreign agents," we gathered at [Dozhd founder and owner] Natasha Sindeyeva's house and chatted for a long time. We decided -- completely rationally -- that if we declared everything, we wouldn't give up, we'd work as long as we could. After all, no special forces had come in to shut down our broadcasting. Whatever we could do under those conditions, we'd do -- just like Dozhd had always worked, fighting for survival under the given conditions. Then the war [the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022] started, and this huge war changed everything.

I had imagined that the repression would intensify and everything [producing independent news] would be closed down -- that would be one plot. But there were several plots, as it turned out. There are many plots, and within those plots, the [government] fight against independent media is merely a storyline. The main plot, of course, is the full-scale invasion of a neighboring state.

When this huge war started, I had no idea how we stayed on the air for another week. I still can't figure it out. Maybe the people who made that decision in Moscow at the time and are still making it now were busy with something else: killing Ukrainians. After some time, of course, we were closed.

Opposition lawmaker Aleksander Elisashvili (right) attackeg ruling Georgian Dream leader Mamuka Mdinaradze (left) at the speaker's rostrum of the Georgian parliament on April 15 during debate over the "foreign agents" bill.
Opposition lawmaker Aleksander Elisashvili (right) attackeg ruling Georgian Dream leader Mamuka Mdinaradze (left) at the speaker's rostrum of the Georgian parliament on April 15 during debate over the "foreign agents" bill.

RFE/RL: I'm sure you're following what's happening in Georgia and can compare it to what's been happening in Russia. What are the similarities and differences?

Kotrikadze: The difference in Georgia's case is that I've never heard such absurd arguments, even from Zakharova. The [bill supporters'] argument that this money, opaque, from the West, helps to open a second front in Georgia.... I read this argument three times when I saw it, and I couldn't believe my eyes. This is such an amazing thing -- unproven and false.

In one case, it's the Russian government, in the other, it's the Georgian government. They're looking for relevant arguments for the general public.

Now the current argument in Georgia lies in some fear of war -- a second war in a short period. (Editor's note: Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war in 2008 that left Russian troops in control of Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions.) And it's clear why the Georgian government is developing this argument. In 2008, we endured terrible aggression from Russia. Many people remember it perfectly well. I was there in Tbilisi, and I remember perfectly well what it was like.

I understand the people who are afraid of war. And I understand that the human psyche is designed in such a way that you want to find simple answers to complex questions. Georgian Dream offers simple answers: "Look, Russia will not invade if we make public the sources of funding for independent media." If it helps you sleep peacefully, people will also think, "Well, let's make it public, and Russia won't attack us again." But this is a lie. He [Putin] will still attack you when he wants to; it doesn't matter whether or not we disclose the financing of independent media.

All the more because that's all already public, as far as I know. Everyone knows everything, down to the last penny -- what's a grant, what's not, what the programs are, and what is spent on them. But should you think critically at this time? People don't want to think critically. It happens everywhere, you know. That's what happened in Russia; it's what's happening in Russia to this day.

The Tavberidze Interviews

Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service has been interviewing diplomats, military experts, and academics who hold a wide spectrum of opinions about the war's course, causes, and effects. To read all of his interviews, click here.

Broadly speaking, there's no difference between what's happening now [in Georgia] and what was happening in Russia back then. In terms of rhetoric and absurdity, both there and here are the same.

I think what's more important is that when the Russian state introduced these restrictions and the wave of designations of "foreign agents" started, rights and freedom were already almost gone. By that time, the situation in Russia was already very bad. Putin had ruled the country for [many] years. That's not the case in Georgia. In Georgia, you can go out into the street and get hit with a water cannon. This is a huge difference. And, of course, Georgian society has the opportunity to express its opinion and protest.

That's why Georgian Dream [or its allies] had to withdraw the draft law [in March 2023] and return it. It wasn't like that in Russia. People there were presented with the facts: Here's your "foreign agent." Who's not a foreign agent today [in Russia]? Then they said, "Look, Boris Akunin is a terrorist and extremist." (Editor's note: Boris Akunin is the pen name of the popular 67-year-old exiled Russian-Georgian writer Grigori Chkhartishvili, who left Russia in 2014 and has been designated a "foreign agent" and was charged in absentia in December 2023 by Russian authorities with "justifying terrorism.")

And what are you going to do? Our hands and feet are already tied [in Russia]. Half of the country that was active and thinking, intellectual, was forced to leave. I don't know the exact percentage, but about 1 million people have been forced to leave. I'm able to talk to you now because I'm in the Netherlands. This is a huge tragedy for Russia.

RFE/RL: There are analogies between what's happening in Georgia today and what has happened in Russia -- the reintroduction of the "foreign agents" bill and the LGBT "propaganda" prohibition law. How realistic is it that what happened in Russia might be repeated in Georgia?

Kotrikadze: I can't predict that. I can't say that Georgia will follow the same path. All I can say is that the parallels are obvious. It's simply impossible not to see that these people, the [Georgian] government, unfortunately, are repeating step-by-step the decisions and the narratives that we heard and saw in Russia.

RFE/RL: Do you have advice for Georgian journalists and civil-society representatives, based not only on your own experiences but also on everything that was happening around you in Russia?

Kotrikadze: No, I'm embarrassed to give anyone advice. Look where I am now and how "successfully" I fought the regime.

RFE/RL: Negative experience is also experience....

Kotrikadze: No, I can't say anything smarter or more valuable than you should fight and not stop. Speak out, and shout when necessary. I think Georgian society can fight and bring matters that it considers important to their conclusion. I just think it's very important not to be silent, even when you think it's a small, minor change in legislation.

The introduction of the draft law on transparency of foreign an attempt to shift Georgia from a pro-Western course to a pro-Russian one. There are a million signs of this. You can't be silent about it; you can't not talk about it. "Is everyone bored? No problem. We'll repeat it 15 more times, a thousand times, a million times. We'll talk about it everywhere." You should use every opportunity for this. It should become a general view that this is unacceptable for a democratic state and that Georgia is not Russia, and it should not become Russia.

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    Anastasia Slovinskaya

    Anastasia Slovinskaya, an award-winning multimedia producer for RFE/RL's Georgian Service and its Russian-language project Echo of the Caucasus since 2014, covers untold stories and vulnerable, underrepresented groups.

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