Georgian Government Drops ‘Foreign Agents’ Billbut the Fight Against Kremlin Influence Continues
Mark Temnycky looks at the turbulence in Tbilisi, Georgians’ desire to join the EU, and the authoritarian drift of the ruling Dream Party
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Earlier this month, thousands of Georgian citizens gathered in Tbilisi to protest their government’s actions. The ruling party, Georgian Dream, decided to implement a law requiring nongovernmental organizations and media outlets to declare themselves as “foreign agents” if they receive over 20% of funding from international donors.
The Georgian opposition bloc and Georgian citizens, however, labelled the “foreign agents” law as nothing more than a way for the Georgian Dream party to consolidate power. Critics also argued that the law mirrored similar legislation in Russia.
As the protestors gathered in their country’s capital, they were quickly met by Georgian police forces. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested, and the police used tear gas, water cannons, and stun grenades to try and disperse the crowd. Eventually, the Georgian Dream party stated that it would withdraw the bill, a decision welcomed by the United States and European Union.
While the “foreign agents” legislation was dropped, tensions are still high. This is not the ruling party’s first attempt to undermine its citizens.
Last summer, the Georgian Dream party proposed and implemented a list of amendments to a wiretapping law. The legislation would allow authorities to “increase the duration of covert surveillance,” something that was met with fierce opposition. The Georgian opposition bloc and Georgian citizens condemned the amendments. Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili vetoed the surveillance amendments, stating that the bill would “further restrict human rights.” She also said the proposed amendments would be a continuation of Soviet-style politics. Despite these protests, the Georgian parliament under the Georgian Dream adopted the amendments anyway.
Then, in February 2023, the European Commission published a report tracking the attempts of candidate countries to meet the obligations required by EU membership. The Commission examined over 30 topics ranging from public procurement and security mechanisms to fundamental rights and the judicial system. In nearly all of these areas, the report assessed there was “some level of preparation,” but a lot of work needed to be done for the Georgian government to meet EU standards. The results of the report left many Georgians disappointed.
The Commission has previously stated that developments in Georgia have undermined that country’s progress to integrate with the European Union. Moreover, the Europeans provided an extensive list of recommendations for the Georgian government to follow to reach EU standards, and with it, EU candidate status.
But the Georgian Dream party appears to be disinterested. Constant political infighting within the government has delayed reform efforts and progress. Attempts to address some of the EU’s recommendations, such as implementing an anti-oligarch bill and establishing an Anti-Corruption Bureau, were halfhearted at best as they were not deemed up to EU standards. These actions will only delay Georgia’s prospects of integrating with the West.
Finally, concerns exist about the Georgian Dream party and its leaders sliding Georgia into an authoritarian regime. The current ruling party is trying to consolidate and hold on to its power, and this was most apparent with the recent attempt to implement the “foreign agent” bill.
In addition, Russian dissidents supported the bill. When protestors quickly gathered to condemn the legislation, the Russians claimed that the West was trying to undermine Georgian authorities. These continued actions will only strengthen Russia’s narrative. Therefore, Georgian citizens, the opposition bloc, and the EU must continue holding the Georgian Dream party accountable for its actions. This will not only help lead the country down the desired path of its citizens, but it will also help counter Russian attempts to undermine Georgia’s sovereignty.
Fortunately, time is still on Georgia’s side. Should the Georgian Dream party have a miraculous turnaround and follow the detailed recommendations and guidance provided by the Commission, then the country has a serious chance to become an EU candidate state. Most Georgian citizens, the Georgian opposition party, and President Zourabichvili welcome and want this path.
But if the Georgian Dream party fails to achieve these objectives, and should the government continue down this authoritarian path, then Georgian citizens will have an opportunity to make their voices heard at the ballot box in the 2024 parliamentary election.
Hopefully, their desire to become part of the West and their determination to hold their government accountable will outlast these struggles.