Georgia is one of the post-soviet countries that sets European integration as its core political objective. However, the recent development of political events in the Georgian parliament steers the 80% majority of the population away from their pro-European goals. Does not the way the ruling party, Georgian Dream, represents people’s dreams feel very questionable?
On March 7, the parliament adopted one of the two bills that could dangerously affect civil society. The bill is referred to as a “foreign agent law” and goes against human rights laws as it seriously threatens freedom of speech and expression. The proposal requires individuals, media, and organisations to register as “foreign agents” if 20% of their funding comes from abroad. The law also requires concerned groups to disclose their information and allows Justice Ministry to inspect them, and in case of some violations, it can also lead to imprisonment of up to five years.
The bill’s goal was presented as improving financial transparency, and it passed the first hearing with a 76-13 majority. In fact, NGOs are already subject to various laws. However, the broader society knew the dangers of such restrictive bills. If adopted, such laws allow authorities to investigate the personal information of “agents of foreign influence.” Moreover, the law not only restricts groups but also discredits them as the label “agent” has a negative connotation and implies carrying out the interest of foreign powers or being influenced by them.
The most concerning part about this bill is its resemblance to the Russian Foreign Agent Law adopted in 2012. The law is widely used to suppress freedom of speech, media, and anti-Putin groups. The law was initially presented as similar to the US Foreign Agent Restriction Act in Russia. However, unlike FARA, the Russian law aims to restrict not only the lobbyists, but its scope expands to the public and media. Ironically, the Georgian bill initiators also used the FARA similarity argument to justify the bill.
Such concerning laws have been adopted not only in East Europe but also in the EU member countries such as Hungary. In 2017 the Hungarian parliament adopted a similar law that did not use the wording “agent” but asked NGOs to register as “organizations in receipt of support from abroad.” The law was in breach of some EU rules regarding capital mobility and human rights laws, and after the order of the European Court of Justice, it got revoked.
The wider Georgian society identified the underlying motifs of the Russian-like law as a threat to democracy. Thousands of Georgians took to the streets and protested for two days, demanding the bill's withdrawal. The protesters were peaceful, demonstrating with anti-Russia posters, waving the EU, Ukraine, and Georgian flags, and asking for their legitimate rights and justice. However, the Georgian Dream chairman referred to the youth-dominated crowd as “radical opposition” and accused them of political destabilisation and anarchism.
There are indeed some videos of protestors throwing stones at the building or breaking the protective fence around it. However, the police violence was unfair and disproportional as they used tear gas and water cannons, aiming them directly at civilians. The total number of arrests during the protests reached 142.
The clashes with police and two days of protesting ended with a victory for the Georgian people. On March 9, the government organised a special meeting and withdrew the bill from the parliament. While announcing this decision, the government referred to the need to reduce the opposition from society. Such language from the government is alarming and showcases the bill withdrawal as a mere pause from an anti-democratic action to avoid intense public confrontation. The government should be kept under scrutiny, and it should be monitored so that the law is not brought back in another form.
The “foreign agent bill” draft raised some concerns on the international political scene. The US Embassy in Georgia called March 7 “a dark day for Georgia’s democracy” and called “Parliament’s advancing of these Kremlin-inspired laws [is] incompatible with the people of Georgia’s clear desire for European integration and its democratic development.” The spokespersons from the EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy shared similar replies.
Several threats and negative comments were heard from Kremlin. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov denounced the protests in Tbilisi and referred to it as a coup attempt. He also compared the event to the “Kyiv’s Maidan” uprising. The analogy is brutally ironic since the Maidan Revolution was against the pro-Russian government.
The tense political situation in Georgia casts doubts on the Georgian pro-European course. Political events, foreign agent bills, police violence, and denouncement of peaceful protests scream a dying democracy. However, it once again highlights the difference between society and the government. This dichotomy has been especially remarkable since the start of the war in Ukraine. The Georgian crowd has demonstrated multiple times, sharing fellowship with Ukraine against Russia. However, the Georgian ruling party has been reluctant to pose sanctions on Russian products and welcomes Russians who flee their occupant country. Meanwhile, Georgian Dream openly criticizes Zelensky’s appeal to release Georgia’s ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili due to serious health complications. Saakashvili holds Ukrainian citizenship.
Georgia-EU relations are decades-long, including proposals regarding the Union membership since 2014. Almost ten years ago, three ex-soviet states - Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova - signed the Association Agreement with the European Union. Since the implementation of this bilateral agreement, the countries mentioned have been putting mutual efforts with the EU to create a foundational framework for EU integration. The paths of the three ex-soviet countries were quite similar. However, in February of 2022, the EU granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, unlike Georgia, as they might have followed the guidance from the bloc better. The Council expressed its eagerness to consider Georgia’s candidacy if the country would meet 12 recommended conditions.
The EU report acknowledged Georgia’s European prospects and its progress, especially in business and economics. However, the country’s polarised political scene was considered as weak institutional stability and a threat to democracy and the rule of law. The demanded reforms regard renewable energy, human rights violations, and a relevant aspect of the Georgian political scene, namely “de-oligarchisation.” Notably, the ruling party, Georgian Dream, was established by the Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili who gained his fortune in Russia.
The Georgia pollical scene looks chaotic. Almost every month, Georgians protest against the government, fearing the return to the Kremlin’s orbit. Not only the domestic struggles but also Russia’s interest in keeping Georgia away from NATO and the EU are putting the country in a dangerous position. Ultimately, the fate of Georgia lies in the hands of voters, with people whose political orientating is firmly with the West. While the EU observes how the political situation unfolds, the Georgian people are getting ready for the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2024.