Protests against „Foreign Agent Law“

After tens of thousands took to the streets to protest the so-called “foreign agent law” the Georgian government preliminary dropped the law. Critic was voiced mainly by civil society and the EU.

Listen to this article as radio piece in German language.

Clouds of tear gas are swirling across Rustaveli Boulevard, people are covering their faces and are looking for friends and relatives as the loudspeakers of the organisers of the demonstration are playing the EU anthem „Ode an die Freude“. It is a surreal situation.

Tens of thousands took to the streets of the Georgian capital Tbilisi, in order to protest a controversial draft law. Besides tear gas, the police used also water cannons. On March 9th, after two nights of mass protests in front of the Georgian parliament the ruling party „Georgian Dream“ withdrew the law on “Transparency of foreign influence”.

Tear Gas in front of the Georgian Parliament on Rustaveli Avenue on 07./08. March 2023.

The planned law resembled the so-called “Foreign Agent Law” that was adopted in Russia in 2012 and lists civil society organisations and media outlets that are financed from abroad in a registry. The Georgian parliament considered two drafts, according to which civil society organisations, which are receiving more than 20% of their funds from foreign donors, would need to register as „foreign agents“. The ruling party „Georgian Dream“ cited „transparency“ as the main reason for the legislative initiative.

Legal basis to silence opponents

This is an argument that the journalist Mariam Nikuradze doesn’t want to accept. She is working for the independent media outlet OC Media, that is also financed by foreign foundations and funding programme. “Most of these organizations, or maybe all of them, are already transparent. So, if you would want to know how OC Media is funded, you can go to the “About Us”-page and see, that we are funded by this or that organisation. Apart from that, all of us submit every year financial statements to the government”, says Nikuradze.

Just recently the authors of the law admitted that most CSOs were already financially transparent and that the main purpose was to record them in the planned register. Those, who would refuse to register, would face high fines and even imprisonment for repeat offences.

Due to the vague formulations it would be possible to create the legal basis to silence uncomfortable actors from civil society or media at any time. Irakli Kobakhidze, the chairman of the ruling party „Georgian Dream“, indicated that the planned law would target the „Shame Movement“, which is funded by the European Endowment of Democracy. The European Endowment for Democracy is a funding programme of the European Parliament. The „Shame Movement“ a liberal youth movement which is affiliated with the „United National Movement“ – the political party of the former president Mikhail Saakashvili, who is currently imprisoned in Georgia. It can be indeed considered surprising that the EU Parliament is influencing Georgian internal politics one-sidedly.

““Agent” has a negative connotation

The draft law would have had affected also other parts of civil society. For the journalist Nikuradze two aspects are predominant: “Agent is a word which has a very bad connotations in our region. The first negative thing will be just ruining the image of several influential organisations. Our second concern is that this draft laws can be interpreted very easily. For example, there is this part about the Justice Ministry in the first draft and the prosecutor’s office in the other draft, who will be entitled to monitor the organisations from the registry twice a year and we don’t know what that means. We don’t know what kind of power they will have, what they will request from us. It might also mean disclosing personal information of any person that is employed in this organization and then it’s about security issues.”

In this context Nikuradze remembers the Russian law as a negative example. “In Russia, it started in 2012 and then it got worse and worse. Eventually, it got to the point where media and civil society organisations just closed down or went into exile. How do we know that the same thing will not happen with us? We don’t.”

The proposal for this law was suggested in the middle of February by a group of so-called “independent” members of the parliament. However, they are said to have close ties to the ruling party. Observers labelled this as attempt by the government to check how the reactions would be. After a few days “Georgian Dream” announced to fully support the law. In the beginning the media protested and alongside other civil society representatives signed a declaration, in which they announced to refuse to register, in case the law would be adopted.

Media and Civil Society protest behind the Parliament on 06th March 2023.

Brawl in the Parliament

During the consultations and first reading in the parliament tempestuous events took place. Accredited journalists were violently removed from the building; the head of the legal affairs committee hit one opposition politician on his head, what caused a brawl inside the parliament. Opponents of the draft law were labelled as “enemies” of the very influential Georgian orthodox church.

In contrary to Ukraine and Moldova, Georgia was not granted the status of „EU Candidate” in the previous year. Instead, the EU issued a 12 point plan that would need to be fulfilled. This plan refers to rule of law, fight against corruption, strengthening civil society and guaranteeing a free and independent media environment. Even though Georgian ruling politicians were not tired to emphasize that the planned-on law on “Transparency of Foreign Influence” would not contradict the declared EU integration. The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell condemned the draft law as „inconsistent with […] EU norms and values“. Its realisation would have “severe consequences” for the relations between the EU and Georgia.

The EU-Ambassador to Georgia Paweł Herczyński, who met jointly with other ambassadors of EU countries with Shalva Papuashvili, Spokesperson of the Parliament, said after the meeting, that the planned law would counter the 12 key priorities. However, fulfilling this plan would be essential to re-evaluate Georgians application to receive EU candidate status.

The MEP Andrius Kubilius, former Prime Minister of Lithuania, is member of the Committee for Foreign Affairs and asked, if the planned law implies that Georgian authorities don’t want to receive further funding for their vivid civil society. And as the government also receives EU funding, if they would label themselves as „foreign agents“.

Civil society deals with important issues

Georgia receives 100 Million EUR as technical and financial support by the EU. Specific funding programmes can be added. In the framework of an EU Economic and Investment Plan after the COVID-19 pandemic Georgia will receive 3.9 Billion Euro in the period 2012-26 to support the domestic economy. The members states support also individually. Beside the US, Germany is the biggest bilateral donor of Georgia. 2020/21 Germany supported Georgia with more than 200 Million Euro, to balance the economic and social implications of the pandemic.

The Georgian civil society that is financed from abroad takes over tasks that in other countries are dealt with or supported by the state. Youth Work, Women’s Rights, sexual minorities, people with disabilities – all these areas and target groups are funded from abroad. Beside the vivid Western oriented civil society, conservative groups are active as well, which becomes visible with regular protests against “Tbilisi Pride” or so-called „gay propaganda“.

In Georgia the two big parties Georgian Dream and United National Movement, the party of the former president and currently imprisoned Mikhail Saakashvili, are facing each other irreconcilably. Election campaigns are characterised by smear campaigns and emphasising the faults of the political opponents. Actual problems, such as poverty, unemployment, ecological problems or precarious job situations are mentioned rarely.

The Georgian president Salome Zurabishvili confirmed her intention to veto the law. The ruling party which has the majority in the parliament announced to overrule her veto. Now, after two nights of mass protests with tear gas and water cannons, the preliminary withdrawal of the legislative initiative.

Mass Demonstration in front of the Parliament on 07th March 2023.

Manoeuvring between EU Integration and relations to Russia

Georgia was regarded to be a front-runner among the countries of the „Eastern Partnership“ in terms of EU Integration. In 2014 an Association Agreement entered into force. It is an open secret that the founder of the ruling party, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who laid the basis for his fortune running into billions during the 1990ies in Russia, is still pulling the strings of Georgian internal politics although he officially retired from politics. But regardless economic interests, the Georgian state needs to manoeuvre carefully between a Western orientation and good relation to the Russian neighbour in the North.

The regions Abkhazia and South-Ossetia, which belong according to international law to Georgia, but are de-facto independent, constitute an unsolved conflict, that makes a deeper integration of Georgia into Western structures, such as EU or NATO, currently impossible. Since 2008 the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) observes the conflict. Not a lot changed since then. An against the backdrop of economical ties of the oligarch Ivanishvili to Russia the opponents of the ruling party reproach the government to run a pro-Kremlin course.

In contrast to opposition media OC Media refrained from labelling the government as „pro-Russian“. This changed now. The journalist Nikuradze explains how she observed in the previous years and especially since the start of the war in Ukraine how the government shifted away from their EU-orientation:

“Before Georgian Dream was at least pretending that they were pro-Western, showing on paper that they were at least implementing the reforms. They had this anti-discrimination law adopted, they did the labour reform and so on. The other issue is enforcing these reforms but at least on paper they were doing these things. But after the war they shifted because we saw the government personally attacking individual ambassadors, for example the US ambassador was insulted numerous times. They were blaming the EU, the West and Ukraine that they want to drag Georgia into the war and open a second front. We’ve seen several statements from Russia praising Georgia for its recent statements or decisions like not to sanction Russia. Also, we’ve seen reports alleging how Georgia is how helping Russia to bypass sanctions.”

EU Flag in front of the Parliament on 07th March 2023.

EU-Membership planned for 2030ies

This corresponds with cases from the previous weeks and months where Russian activists and journalists, who were critical of the Kremlin or who were labelled „foreign agents“ in Russia, were denied entry to Georgia. Even if they were living in the country before the outbreak of the war.

An estimated 70% of the Georgian population call themselves „pro-EU“ and are in favour of closer ties with the EU. This explains the size of the demonstration. “No to the Russian Law” was one of the slogans that was shouted by the crowd over and over again. Almost iconic the footage of the women who was supported by others waving the EU flag and resisting the water cannon. Looking for an EU member state for a similar enthusiasm towards the EU anthem and for a comparable amount of EU flags would be futile attempt. For the majority of Georgians receiving the candidate status would be an important step towards a full membership, which is envisioned by the government for the 2030ies.

If this goal is still pursuit is not totally clear. When the draft law was officially withdrawn the majority of deputies of the ruling party were missing. The supporters complained in a statement that the law was mistakenly labelled as „Russian law“. If this law was about an orientation towards Russia or about an internal consolidation of political power – both wouldn’t be in the spirit of a Western orientation. The ruling party „Georgian Dream“ and the „People’s Power“, the group of deputies who suggested the law, announced already that they would explain better to the public why it is important to ensure the transparency of foreign influence as soon as the emotional irritation would calm down. The future of the law and Georgia remains uncertain.


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