7 March, 2023
The Introduction of a “Foreign Agent” Law in Georgia
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The Georgian Parliament’s intention to introduce a so-called “foreign agent” law, meaning that non-governmental organisations and media outlets that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad would need to register in a separate registry as ‘agents of foreign influence’, has sparked strong reactions. Considering Georgia’s commitment to fulfil EUs 12-point recommendations to be granted EU candidate status, three experts, two Georgian and one Swedish, analyse what implications this bill could entail for the accession process. The analysts themselves bear responsibility for their positions.
Sergi Kapanadze, Georgia’s Reforms Associates (GRASS), Tbilisi
Georgia is at a crossroads, as many times before, however, this time, it is a “Yanukovych moment”. After missing the candidate status in 2022, Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream party has done everything to “persuade” European partners that it did not deserve this status. The arrest of journalist Nika Gvaramia, mistreatment of former president Mikheil Saakashvili, increased polarization, deliberate torpedoing of the ombudsman's election process, and reluctance to join EU policies and sanctions on Ukraine were enough to push away even the biggest friends in the EU. However, introducing the foreign agents' law, a la Russian playbook, makes even the ardent supporters of Georgia wonder whether this is done to deliberately invoke the EU's negative position on the candidate's status. To add insult to injury, the same group in the Parliamentary majority is now pushing for the next step - a law regulating media from spreading fake news and obscenities - another page from Russia's authoritarian playbook.
The EU, however, can still stop the process from becoming irreversible, Georgian civil society organizations to become dysfunctional and media freedom to be seriously undermined. The EU member states, and the EU institutions can do the following: First, EU capitals, including the Presidency, as well as the EU institutions at the top level, should make it truly clear in loud public statements and bilateral or multilateral demarcates that the adoption of the draft law on foreign agents will inevitably lead to the loss of the EU candidate status. Second, the EU should make it perfectly clear that withdrawing an anti-democratic Russia-type law is insufficient for the EU candidate status. The release of Gvaramia, the humanitarian transfer of Saakashvili abroad for medical treatment, the election of an impartial ombudsman, and making steps toward depolarization need to be secured before the candidate status is granted to Georgia. Third, in the next two months, before the law is passed, the initiators and supporters of the law should be subjected to selective sanctions, whether entry bans or cancelation of official visits. Public statements on this could be a wake-up call to some leaders of the Georgian Dream, for whom sanctions from the EU will be very painful.
Shota Gvineria, Economic Policy Research Center (EPRC), Tbilisi
Considering the open pro-Russian stance of Georgian authorities that became apparent after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the claims from the ruling Georgian Dream party that the draft law initiated by its most aggressive anti-Western friction is the analogue of the U.S. bill on Foreign Agents Registration Act cannot be convincing. Adopting the Russian law on foreign agents in the current geopolitical and internal contexts is the non-return point that will irreversibly fix Georgia into the Russian orbit:
First, since Georgian authorities are consistently using administrative resources and full control over judiciary system against all sources of critical opinions in the country, if the given law is adopted, it will be used as an additional tool for silencing the pro-democracy stakeholders in Georgia, irreversibly strengthening authoritarian rule. Second, in direct contradiction with over 80% of Georgians, and the para 78 of the Georgian constitution obliging all constitutional bodies to take all measures for the full-fledged integration of the country in the EU and NATO, adoption of the given law will allow one political group to sabotage integration processes and deprive Georgia of the EU candidate status.
If this law enters into force, Georgia will miss a historic window of opportunity to become a free and independent European state for decades to come, which will further strengthen authoritarian powers and undermine democracy in the wider Black Sea region. Therefore, the EU, in coordination with the US, must announce a package of sanctions imposing travel restrictions and freezing of assets that will automatically apply to all MPs who will vote for this anti-democratic, anti-constitutional law. Choosing to deliberately damage Georgia's national interest and constitutionally pronounced foreign policy orientation must inflict consequences on the supporters of such a decision and they must not be allowed to enjoy privileges of access to the West at the expense of the Georgian people.
Jakob Hedenskog, Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies (SCEEUS), Stockholm
The Georgian draft law on foreign agents has been widely condemned by civil society, the media, opposition, and representatives of EU member states in Georgia, as well as abroad. It has even been criticised by the President of Georgia, Salome Zourabichvili, who has promised to veto it (the parliament can, however, override a presidential veto). Official representatives of the Georgian Dream Party, such as chairman Irakli Kobakhidze, and MP Dachi Beraia, have defended the draft law and launched attacks on its critics, accusing them of being “anti-church” and “spies”. The original Russian law on foreign agents has been steadily expanded since it was passed in 2012 and widely used to crack down on civil society and independent media. A further tightening of the law after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has effectively completely suppressed free and critical thinking in Russia.
Therefore, concerns have been raised that the law will have dangerous consequences and harm Georgia’s EU accession process. The draft law on foreign agent comes as Georgia is attempting to fulfil the twelve recommendations of the European Commission toward EU candidacy status. The draft law directly contradicts two of the recommendations, namely number 7, which calls the country to undertake stronger reforms to ensure a free, professional, pluralistic and independent media environment, as well as number 10 on public organisations, in which the country should ensure public participation as all levels of the decision-making process. Furthermore, the foreign agent law has taken the polarisation in the country to an even higher level, quite the contrary to the first EU recommendation to the Georgian authorities.