For nearly two decades since the 2003 “Rose Revolution,” Georgia sought to escape Russia’s shadow by integrating itself with the European Union and NATO.
Now, critics say, it risks tilting back toward Moscow, especially as the government pushes through legislation similar to an instrument President Vladimir Putin used to crush dissent in Russia.
A draft “foreign agent” bill that lawmakers passed on Tuesday in the first reading would target media and non-governmental organizations in an initiative backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party. It would indirectly promote Russian interests by curbing the influence of groups that largely rely on funding from the US and Europe.
Police fired tear gas and used water cannon to try to disperse demonstrators after several thousand people gathered outside the parliament in Tbilisi to protest the vote.
President Salome Zourabichvili, who’s on a visit to New York, said in a late-night address to demonstrators that “I stand with you because you represent free Georgia.” Lawmakers who supported the draft law had violated Georgia’s constitution, which required officials to “do everything possible to take this country to the EU,” she said, calling for the measure to be abandoned.
Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili defended the initiative, saying that there is a lack of transparency and accountability. “The future of our country doesn’t belong and won’t belong to the foreign agents and servants of the foreign country, the future of our country and people belong to the patriots,” he said, echoing rhetoric from Putin.
Georgia’s muted response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has already drawn strong criticism inside the country — which fought a brief war with Russia in 2008 — and from officials in Kyiv.
“The intention of the authors of the Georgian bill is not to control the influence of the enemy country,” Nino Lapiashvili, director of Tbilisi State University’s Institute for European Studies, said by phone. “It’s an unjustified attempt to retaliate against the substantiated criticism of governmental policies of those Georgian civil society organizations that are financed by the EU, USA or other Western strategic partners.”
The proposal threatens fines and imprisonment for as long as five years to organizations or individuals who receive at least 20% of their income from abroad and fail to register with the government as an “agent of foreign influence.”
The standoff over the draft law could culminate within days as the proposed legislation makes its way through parliament, worsening tensions in the streets. Police arrested at least 36 people at protests Thursday outside parliament, with more than half still in detention.
Opposition parties, media and civil society groups have denounced what they call “the Russian law,” while leading business associations in Georgia warned the measure risks undermining the Caucasus republic’s already fading chances of gaining EU membership. Zourabichvili, who was elected as Georgian Dream’s candidate, has said she’ll veto the law, which has been sharply criticized by the EU and the US.
Although Garibashvili condemned Russia’s “unjustified” aggression against Ukraine, he hasn’t imposed sanctions on Russia and has refused to provide military aid to Kyiv, accusing opponents of his policy of seeking to “create a second front in Georgia.”
The ability to maintain trade ties with Russia, alongside the arrival of tens of thousands fleeing the Kremlin’s mobilization, has meant a boon for the $25 billion economy. It resulted in what a former central bank governor has called a “windfall” revenue of about $2 billion last year, more than quintuple what Georgia received in 2021.
The controversy has erupted at a sensitive time for Georgia. Former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who led the 2003 pro-western revolution, is languishing in prison as the government in Tbilisi faces increasingly loud expressions of concern for his health from leaders in Europe and in Moldova and Ukraine, which last year moved ahead of Georgia in the race for EU membership.
The government says Saakashvili crossed into the country illegally in 2021 and that his health is being provided for.
The legislation will enable “society to be informed about who is who,” said Eka Sepashvili, a member of the People’s Power faction in Georgia’s parliament that proposed the legislation with backing from Georgian Dream.
Sepashvili said two different versions of the bill adopted by parliament will be sent to the Venice Commission for review and the final draft will depend on which one it approves. Voting in the final two readings will take place after receiving the opinion of the Council of Europe’s legal advisory body, she said.
Many Georgian opposition media outlets and non-governmental organizations rallying outside the parliament building in the capital, Tbilisi, said they’d refuse to register should the law require them to do so. Paata Zakareishvili, a political analyst and former government official, said he’d rather go to jail.
“Let them arrest me, I don’t care,” he told reporters Sunday.