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‘Georgia’s bid to Muzzle Media and NGO’s and the Russian-Made Oligarch Behind it’

Top level discussions between Georgian government officials and their party’s oligarch founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, provide insights into the motivation for resurrecting a draft law that prompted two nights of rioting last year, reports Will Neal

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili in November 2022
Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, pictured above in November 2022, says the bill is an exact “copy” of one Vladimir Putin introduced to crush dissent in Russia

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Over the past few nights, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, and other cities across the South Caucasian country, to protest their government’s second attempt to pass a Russian-style law targeting independent media and NGOs.

Similar measures have been weaponised by the Putin regime to crush dissent since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Critics say Georgia’s “foreign influence” bill – introduced last March and shelved after two nights of rioting before an almost identical bill was re-introduced this week – marks the latest episode in a growing authoritarian slide into Moscow’s orbit on part of the ruling Georgian Dream party.

The first bill required media and non-profit organisations (NGOs) to register as “pursuing the interests of a foreign power” if they receive more than 20% of their funds from abroad, then face enhanced scrutiny in the form of potentially debilitating audits and other official checks. Most, if not all of this financial information, is already public but critics feared the extra measures would be used to silence independent press and watchdog NGOs reliant on support from the US and other western partners.

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The draft law was contrary to reforms laid out by the EU as conditions of Georgia’s bid for membership – something supported by as much as 90% of the voting population – and sparked massive demonstrations. Protesters mobilised in mass outside the parliamentary building on Tbilisi’s Rustaveli Avenue where they were met with a violent response from police. After two nights of carnage, the government backed down, effectively withdrawing the bill under a promise to revive it once they’d “educated” the public on its merits.

A new bill, labelled “nearly identical” by Euronews, was advanced by the Georgian parliament on April 17 with 83 votes in favour and zero against, the publication reported, noting it was boycotted by the opposition.

Both the EU and the US spoke out in stern terms following the news. On April 18, the US Department of State released a statement saying it was “gravely disappointed” by the Georgian parliament’s decision to advance “Kremlin-inspired ‘foreign influence’ legislation”.  

“As the EU has stated, passage of this law could compromise Georgia’s progress on its EU path.  We join our European allies in urging Georgia not to enact legislation that goes against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Georgian citizens — the desire to integrate fully into the EU,” the statement continued.

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Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, and Oliver Várhelyi, the European Commissioner for neighbourhood and enlargement, released a joint statement calling the re-introduction of the legislation “very concerning” and if adopted “would negatively impact Georgia’s progress on its EU path”.

“This law is not in line with EU core norms and values,” their statement reads. “Georgia has a vibrant civil society that contributes to the country’s successful progress towards EU membership. The proposed legislation would limit the capacity of civil society and media organisations to operate freely, could limit freedom of expression and unfairly stigmatise organisations that deliver benefits to the citizens of Georgia.”

The statement urged Georgia “to refrain from adopting legislation that can compromise its EU path, “a path supported by the overwhelming majority of Georgian citizens”.

Moscow, meanwhile, with whom Georgian Dream has enjoyed steadily warming relations since the conflict began, endorsed the move.

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, who has developed a close working relation with Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, has reportedly vowed to veto the legislation if it ever arrives at her desk. But her opposition could be eventually overridden by the collection of 76 votes. Zourabichvili’s term is scheduled to end later this year. 

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The controversial law has been dubbed the “Russian law” as it has similarities with a bill that the Kremlin introduced a decade ago to silence critics. Georgia has struggled to contain pro-Russian influence, an issue considered a major roadblock in the country’s ambition to join the EU.

“It is exactly a copy of Putin’s law,” Zourabichvili told the BBC earlier this week.

“Who has decided that this law should be reintroduced? Is it in Georgia or is it beyond our borders? Is it in Moscow that this decision has been taken? That is the main question about transparency that the Georgian population is asking.”

To understand how a country part-occupied by Russia, and which went to war with Moscow in 2008, wound up inching closer to the Kremlin, two sources with close knowledge of the matter told the Byline Times that you need to grasp the overwhelming control over public life exerted by the ruling party’s oligarch founder, Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, and the financial difficulties he’s facing.

Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Moscow during the Wild West of privatisation that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, has, since the Ukraine invasion, faced calls to be targeted with sanctions for his longstanding ties to powerful Russian business interests.

Widely regarded as Georgian Dream’s éminence grise, he’s also yo-yoed in and out of office since his party first assumed power in 2012, most recently assuming the title of honorary chairman in December last year. When asked previously by reporters if he feared financial restrictions from the West, Ivanishvili cryptically said he was “already under sanctions.”

Those comments appear to have been in reference to the difficulties he’s faced in retrieving some of his estimated $6 billion from Credit Suisse, which was taken over by UBS last year, after he claims to have been the victim of fraud. The matter is still before the courts. A source with access to the oligarch’s inner circle, claimed to Byline Times that Ivanishvili was suspicious of NGO’s reporting to Washington about his influence and financial position, and feared the US may have leant on the Swiss financial sector to restrict his access to the contested funds.

The source said that before the foreign influence bill’s reintroduction was announced, Ivanishvili allegedly called three top officials – Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze, Chairman Irakli Garibashvili and Head of State Security Grigol Liluashvili –for a closed-door meeting at his private residence. During that summit, Ivanishvili is understood to have told the officials to retable the bill despite protestations from the prime minister that doing so would threaten the party’s chances at parliamentary elections in October.

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A second source with first-hand knowledge of recent legislative processes in Georgia had another theory as to why the billionaire may have discarded his government’s advice. On April 17, Georgian Dream pushed through an amendment to the country’s tax regulations that would theoretically allow Ivanishvili to move his substantial offshore assets into the country without paying any tariffs. If he is planning to clear house abroad, and given his suspicion of a Western conspiracy against his finances facilitated by Georgian NGOs, the source adds it seems a logical step to ensure protection from watchdog and media scrutiny by passing the revamped foreign influence bill as soon as possible.

Though Western partners have condemned the bill in much the same way as last year, international attention is for now largely focused on escalating tensions in the Middle East, and the rapidly deteriorating situation in Ukraine’s eastern theatre. Many of Georgia’s formal allies are also facing their own electoral challenges, meaning they’re likely to be more preoccupied with domestic issues as the year wears on, while the ruling party’s domestic political opponents stand divided as ever with the polls swiftly approaching.

Georgian Dream’s approval ratings remain abysmally low among a voting public who still harbour bitter memories of their war with Moscow during which Russia consolidated its de-facto control of two breakaway territories in Georgia already subject to occupation since the ‘90s. As protests against the “Russian Law” continue to mount, there’s a growing chance this bill may well prove the Ivanishvili government’s last gamble.


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