Georgia keeps us busy as the battle for its future intensifies

Over the past seven weeks, Georgia has seen daily mass protests, sparked by the ruling party's reintroduction of a controversial “foreign influence” law in April, after it had refrained from taking similar measures last year.

Thousands protested in Tbilisi against the draft law “On the transparency of foreign influence”, which the pro-European opposition also calls the “Russian law” because of its similarity to the Russian law on “foreign agents”.

It has become a symbol of division between Georgians who want to be accepted as part of the democratic European family and those who prefer accommodation and closer ties with Russia. For many Georgians, it amounts to a struggle between forces that support democracy and Georgia's independence and those who prefer authoritarian methods modeled on Russia.

Despite the protests, the Georgian parliament passed the law in third reading on May 14. President Salome Zurabishvili vetoed the bill on May 18, but parliament overrode her veto on May 28.

84 MPs, mostly from the ruling Georgian Dream party, voted to lift the veto, exceeding the required majority of 76 out of 150 votes.

What's next?

According to Georgia's Constitution, the document must be delivered to the President within three days. President Zurabishvili can sign and publish it within five days. If she does not do so, Parliament Speaker Shalva Papuashvili will sign and publish it.

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In the former Soviet republic of Georgia, there are currently mass protests against a new law on “foreign agents” that takes a similar approach to Russian legislation against NGOs supported by foreign investors.

“The president will not sign the law, but then it will go back to parliament, where the speaker will sign it,” Georgian journalist and activist Khatia Khasaia told the Kyiv Post.

This could be followed by a lawsuit against the bill, which the president or Georgian media and NGOs could file with the Constitutional Court. This process would take several months, so the exact date of the law's entry into force is unclear.

“A signal has already been received from Europe that certain measures will be taken. These are likely to be sanctions, as in the case of the United States, which is imposing personal sanctions and is also considering a review of relations between Tbilisi and Washington in all spheres of life,” Khasaia added.

Key provisions of the Foreign Influence Transparency Act

The new law requires non-governmental organizations and media that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as “organizations that promote foreign interests” and submit annual financial reports that are made publicly available.

If they fail to register or submit these reports, they face a fine of 25,000 lari (about $9,400).

If the law comes into force, the Ministry of Justice would have the power to conduct checks at any time to ensure compliance, including access to required information and personal data.

Human rights activists have raised concerns about the law's surveillance provisions, arguing that the lack of such restrictions allows unrestricted access to all types of information within organizations and media.

Are the Russian and Georgian versions of the law on “foreign agents” similar?

Yes, very similar.

The Georgian initiative is similar to Russia's law “On Controlling the Activities of Persons Under Foreign Influence”, which allows the Ministry of Justice to brand any NGO, media outlet or individual as a “foreign agent” with minimal evidence – simply receiving foreign funds or claiming to be under foreign influence.

In Russia, violations can be punished with fines of up to 300,000 rubles (about $3,200) and prison sentences of up to five years.

Both Russia and Georgia cite the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) as a precedent, which provides for up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine for violations. However, FARA is rarely enforced; only seven cases have gone to court in 50 years.

In Russia, the law on “foreign agents” is now being fully implemented; the fines imposed there will increase more than twentyfold in 2023.

In the United States, a “foreign agent” is a person who is under the control of a foreign principal, while in Russia and Georgia even partial foreign financing is sufficient.

What risks does the adoption of the law entail?

Local and foreign experts warn that the new law will restrict the activities of opponents of the ruling Georgian Dream party.

With parliamentary elections scheduled for October 26, the law could allow the ruling party to tighten control over election observers and journalists to secure another victory.

“Of course, this has consequences for the country. The most important thing is the threat to the European future. More than once, EU parliamentarians have called for us to be stripped of our EU candidate status,” Khasaia told the Kyiv Post.

“Accession negotiations with the EU could simply not begin. The country would lose the financial support that the United States, for example, has given us since independence,” she added.

According to Khasaia, the NGOs are being closed because almost all of them have declared their disobedience and do not intend to register as “foreign agents.” As a result, the ruling party will take repressive measures.

“The Russian scenario that began in 2012 and continues to this day will repeat itself. All this, of course, will happen in the worst case scenario,” Khasaia said.

What do Georgian activists say?

People were well aware of what was going to happen, said Khasai. But as the protesters themselves claim, the real battle and the final verdict will only come at the elections.

“Just because a law is passed doesn't mean we will give in,” Khasai said. “The protests will continue, and new videos will appear online showing citizens confronting Georgian Dream MPs who supported the law, calling them traitors and puppets,” Khasai told the Kyiv Post.

According to the Georgian activist, the future of the country now depends on the elections – an opinion shared by hundreds of thousands of Georgian citizens.

“It is not about the Georgian dream or the national movement, [Bidzina] Ivanishvili or [Mikheil] Saakashvili no longer,” said Khasai.

“It is a simple choice between the West and Russia. And 80 percent of Georgians have already made their position clear, as it is stated in the constitution: we are committed to the EU and NATO,” she added.

Nadim Khmaladze, a well-known public figure and volunteer who has been serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine since March 2022, expresses high hopes for the upcoming elections.

“84 MPs have overcome the president's veto. The Georgian people will not allow the Iron Curtain to fall over the free world. The elections on October 26 will be a referendum and this law will be nothing more than a piece of paper,” Khmaladze said.

“We will definitely emerge victorious, because the Georgian people have never been so united. The Georgian Dream united us by adopting a Russian law. We will win. Ukraine will win, and together we will join the European Union and NATO,” he added.

Anna Harden

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