The story so far: The Georgian Parliament on Friday formally withdrew a contentious foreign agent Bill after it sparked widespread protests in the country. Georgia’s ruling party Georgian Dream announced the withdrawal on Wednesday.
What were the draft laws?
The Georgian Parliament had decided to introduce two new regulations for non-profit organisations (NPOs) operating in Georgia – tackling transparency of foreign influence and registration of foreign agents. According to Shalva Papuashvili, the Chairman of the Parliament of Georgia, the country is “determined to closely work with (our) international partners to ensure a fine balance between legitimate goals of transparency and security on the one hand and rights and freedoms of civil society on the another” as Georgia pursues European Union (EU) membership.
The two draft laws would have required media and non-governmental organisations that receive over 20% of their funding from foreign sources to register as “agents of foreign influence”, news agency Associated Press reported. According to the authors of the Bill, it wouldbring transparency to the work of foreign-funded entities in Georgia, but according to opponents, it could potentially obstruct Georgia’s efforts to join the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).
Organisations failing to comply with the law can face fines of around GEL 25,000 (US$ 9,600) for evasion of registration or failure to submit the full financial declaration, Human Rights Watch reported.
Thousands of Georgian protestors participated in demonstrations against the proposed law in the country. In capital Tbilisi, protestors took to the street in large numbers in the city centre on March 8. Police resorted to forceful measures such as water cannons and tear gas to disperse crowds. According to the country’s Interior Ministry, 133 protestors were arrested.
The Bill was withdrawn on March 9. The lawmakers acknowledged that the Bill “has caused controversy in society” and was withdrawn “without any reservations”, but they also argued that it was presented in a negative light.
The President of Georgia Salome Zourabichvili supported the protestors and welcomed the government’s decision to recall the foreign agent Bill. “I have said it from the very beginning, I’ll veto every law that will not be in line with our European path. I’ll veto every such law and this veto is no longer an empty veto, as you stand behind it. I definitely have faith in you and I hope you have faith in me,” she said in a statement.
Are comparisons with an older Russian Bill true?
Russia did pass a similar law in 2012 that classified internationally funded non-governmental agencies (NGOs) as “foreign agents”. Under the law, NGOs are required to disclose any funding received from abroad, or risk penalties or imprisonment. Human rights activists in Russia have expressed their concern over the law, fearing being marginalised or considered spies.
In 2021, Russia expanded the scope of the law to include provisions that can punish “foreign agents” with up to five years in prison.
The concept of “foreign agents” is not new and has lingered since the Soviet era. According to BBC, Soviet Union used “foreign agent” as an abuse for political dissidents.
The U.S. also has a similar law – Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), enacted in 1938. This law makes public disclosure obligations mandatory for persons representing foreign interests. Its definition of foreign principals includes foreign governments, political parties, corporations, individuals, and NGOs. Individuals, lobbyists, public relations professionals, prominent businesspeople, or even former U.S. government officials engaged in lobbying or advocacy for foreign governments, or organisationshave to register with the U.S. Department of Justice and disclose their relationship and financials.
The Georgian Dream has argued that the provisions of its foreign agent Bill are an “exact analogue” of FARA, BBC reported.
Are pro-Russian sentiments hampering Georgia’s European dream?
Georgia became an independent republic after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Since then, popular sentiment in the country has been mixed, with a sizeable pro-West section existing alongside a smaller pro-Russian faction.
In 2019, Georgia saw widespread protests after Sergei Gavrilov, a Russian leader, visited the Georgian Parliament as part of an assembly of legislators from Orthodox Christian countries and also delivered a speech in Russian. The Georgian Dream Party was in majority during that time. Russia also supported the self-proclaimed independent regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, which enhanced the feeling of hostility against Russians among many Georgian citizens.
According to a poll conducted by International Republican Institute’s Centre for Insights in Survey Research, 85% of Georgians either “fully support” or “somewhat support” joining the EU.
Critics have warned that the foreign agent Bill could seriously hamper Georgia’s efforts to become a member of the EU. The country’s bid for immediate EU candidate status, shortly after its neighbour Russia attacked Ukraine, was rejected in 2022. The EU also gave Georgia a list of 12 recommendations to fulfil for the country to receive EU membership candidate status, which included judicial reforms, addressing local polarisation, and commitment to “de-oligarchisation”.
European Council President Charles Michel said that adopting foreign influence law is incompatible with the “EU path which majority in Georgia wants”.
Under the Georgian Dream Party, the country has also been backsliding on democratic parameters, as has been pointed out by critics like the European People’s Party.