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New U.S. Legislation Aims To Dissuade Democratic Backsliding In Georgia


Georgian Dream Chairman Irakli Garibashvili (left), influential billionaire founder Bidzina Ivanishvili (center), and Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze (right) attend the party's congress in Tbilisi in February.
Georgian Dream Chairman Irakli Garibashvili (left), influential billionaire founder Bidzina Ivanishvili (center), and Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze (right) attend the party's congress in Tbilisi in February.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. lawmakers are set to unveil a bill this week that seeks to persuade Georgia's government to kill a controversial "foreign agent" law widely viewed as rolling back democratic achievements.

The Mobilizing and Enhancing Georgia's Options for Building Accountability, Resilience, and Independence (MEGOBARI) Act offers a combination of carrots and sticks to stop the final passage of the Georgian bill that would force nongovernmental organizations and media that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as "foreign agents." The acronym for the bill, MEGOBARI, is also the Georgian word for "friend."

The proposed legislation -- expected to be introduced to Congress by South Carolina Republican Congressman Joe Wilson -- would require the U.S. administration to impose sanctions on Georgian officials responsible for the controversial law as well as individuals involved in human rights violations such as members of the security forces and those who have engaged in large-scale corruption.

Tens of thousands of Georgians, mainly young adults, have taken to the streets over the past few weeks to protest the "foreign agent" law, which experts say is aimed at undermining the opposition ahead of parliamentary elections in October and could be used to clamp down on civil society and media.

The Georgian legislation is similar to a law passed by the Russian government in 2012 that served to tighten the noose around the opposition and has sparked concerns in the United States and European Union. Some Georgian NGOs have said they will not comply with the bill, potentially opening themselves up to police raids and closure.

U.S. Congressman Joe Wilson
U.S. Congressman Joe Wilson

A bipartisan group of 29 lawmakers in the House of Representatives, the lower house in the U.S. Congress, earlier this month addressed a letter to Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze condemning the "foreign agent" bill and warning its passage would force Washington to review its ties with Tbilisi.

"The situation in Georgia is clear. The government can choose to listen to the voices of the Georgian people or continue down a dark road to Russian-style authoritarianism. We state, in no uncertain terms, that choosing this latter path would cause the United States to fundamentally reassess the nature of our relationship," the lawmakers said in their May 10 letter.

Russian Intelligence Assets

With the Georgian parliament passing the bill in a third and final reading on May 14, the U.S. lawmakers are now making good on their word.

Work on the MEGOBARI Act has been in progress for months as experts on Capitol Hill expected Georgian Dream to pursue its passage a second time after pulling it in 2023 amid protests, a person close to the legislation told RFE/RL. The person asked their name not be used so they could speak freely on the issue.

The bill also requires the U.S. administration to report to Congress on any Russian intelligence assets in the country as well as Chinese influence, including in the security sphere.

In recent weeks, thousands of Georgians have taken to the streets to protest against the "foreign agent" law.
In recent weeks, thousands of Georgians have taken to the streets to protest against the "foreign agent" law.

The person familiar with the bill said work on those matters, including the sanctions list and details of Russian and Chinese malign influence, are already under way and could be announced quickly were the MEGOBARI Act to pass.

Exposing Russian agents among the Georgian elite, as well as cases of Chinese influence peddling, would serve to undermine Georgian Dream's narrative that it is protecting the sovereignty of the nation with the "foreign agent" bill.

The ruling Georgian Dream party has accused foreign-funded NGOs of instigating protests following elections in 2020 and after the introduction of the "foreign agent" bill in 2023.

The person familiar with the proposed legislation indicated that the United States possesses information that could torpedo the reputation of members of the Georgian elite.

In a statement posted on Facebook on May 21, Georgian Dream accused U.S. lawmakers sponsoring the MEGOBARI Act of seeking to "blackmail" them.

U.S. sanctions bar individuals, as well as the companies they control, from doing business with U.S. persons. More importantly, it bars them and their companies from conducting any financial transactions in U.S. dollars, the world's most widely used currency. The sanctions could sting as Georgia's economy is highly dollarized with a large chunk of outstanding bank loans and deposits denominated in the U.S. currency.

Protestors chant as they demonstrate outside the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi on May 18.
Protestors chant as they demonstrate outside the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi on May 18.

The bill does offer carrots as well, providing the ruling party drops the "foreign agent" law, including fewer barriers to trade, better access to U.S. visas, and economic aid. The United States Agency for International Development already allocates about $70 million annually for Georgia to support education, small businesses, and NGOs among other spheres.

The person familiar said the incentives are also a signal to Tbilisi that the United States wants to rejuvenate the bilateral relationship, which they described as having been on cruise control in recent years, noting the U.S.-Georgia Strategic Partnership Commission hasn't met for some time.

"This is a constructive & well-timed way to lay out for the Georgian people the friendly alternative that awaits if they manage to take back their government," Josh Rudolph, a senior fellow and the head of the German Marshall Fund's Transatlantic Democracy Working Group, said in a tweet.

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili vetoed the "foreign agent" bill last week but the Georgian Dream-controlled parliament is expected to override her veto when they vote next week.

An American And A Russian Confront Georgia's Violent Crackdown On Protests
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"The Georgia-U.S. strategic partnership is currently a prisoner of Georgian Dream's party politics," Irakli Sirbiladze, an international relations researcher, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service.

The Georgian ruling party "is ready to give up the country's national interest -- the strengthening of political, defense, economic, and people-to-people ties with the U.S. -- in order to achieve the party's goal," Sirbiladze said.

William Courtney, the former U.S. ambassador to Georgia from 1995-97, agreed that the MEGOBARI Act is unlikely to persuade Georgian Dream from killing the bill.*

"There is no sign that this government is going to be deterred from taking Georgia in a more authoritarian and anti-Western direction," said Courtney, who is now an analyst at the Washington-based Rand Corp think tank.

"It may be too late for diplomacy to make much difference," he said, referring to the act.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Georgian Service
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story had the wrong dates for Ambassador Courtney's tenure.
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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.

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