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How the Georgian ‘Foreign Agents Bill’ May Cost it Everything its People Have Ever Dreamed Of – And Benefit No One But Russia

Georgian Dream’s ‘Russian-style’ law has prompted strong statements of concern from the UK, US and EU with critics saying it is an attempt to muzzle the media and NGOs – it may also end Georgia’s hopes of joining the EU

A demonstrator stands with an EU flag in front of police during an opposition protest against ‘the Russian law’ near the Georgian Parliament building in Tbilisi on 1 May 2024. Photo: Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP/Alamy


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As someone who came to greatly love and admire the Georgian people during my three years’ service as British Ambassador there from 2013 to 2016, it is heartrending to see the current scenes of violence and confrontation on the streets of Tbilisi.

Georgians, for all their formidable prowess on the rugby field, their bellicose classical dance, and traditional costumes adorned with daggers and bullet pouches, are not inherently war-like.

They are, in fact, more inclined to offer any stranger a warm smile and glass of wine, than to ignore or slight you. However, they will not run away from a fight, if goaded beyond reason. 

The duality of their nature is vividly represented in the form of the famous statue of Mother Georgia on a hilltop overlooking Tbilisi, holding a glass of wine in one hand and a sword in the other. Friends are welcome. But, cross us, if you dare.  

Demonstrators build a barricade to close an entrance of the Georgian Parliament building during an opposition protest against ‘the Russian law’ in Tbilisi on 2 May 2024. Photo: Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP/Alamy

It is clear that a line has been crossed for many Georgians now – unfortunately by their own government rather than any foreign invader.

They have risen up in anger to protest the ruling Georgian Dream party’s attempt to pass a law requiring any organisation receiving more than 20% of its funding from foreign sources to register as an organisation representing a foreign interest – dubbed “the Russia law” by its critics for its similarity to legislation introduced in Russia. They judge it, quite rightly, to be a naked attempt to discredit and curtail the important work of civil society, most of the funding for which comes from Western countries, to strengthen Georgian democracy, including by holding the Government to account, highlighting corruption, and observing elections.   

However, much more is at stake than just the role of NGOs.

The introduction of the controversial legislation also seems to reflect a deliberate decision by the ruling party to turn Georgia away from its Euro-Atlantic path, since leading figures in both the EU and NATO have repeatedly made it clear that this law is incompatible with membership of those bodies. The protests are therefore also about what kind of country Georgia seeks to be – an independent, democratic nation, aligned with Europe and embedded in Western security architecture; or a subordinate, weak, client state of Russia.

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For years, the Georgian Dream Government has seemed ambivalent about the country’s Euro-Atlantic trajectory, despite opinion polls repeatedly showing that Georgians overwhelmingly support joining the EU and NATO, and regard Russia as their number one threat.

While I was Ambassador there, the Government played lip service to these aspirations and passed just enough legislation – for example, banning discrimination against people based on their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, and improving transparency of institutions – to keep obtaining more benefits bringing them closer to the EU and NATO – such as visa-free travel across the EU, and joint training and military exercises with NATO countries.  

However, democratic reforms slowed meaningfully in recent years and even reversed in some areas, such as media freedom and independence of the judicial system. Government leaders have increasingly frequently criticised and insulted Western diplomats, attacked civil society organisations as enemies, accused Western governments of interfering in Georgian democracy, and even used Kremlin talking points to blame NATO for the war in Ukraine.

Georgia noticeably has also failed to uphold EU sanctions on Russia, allowed thousands of Russian citizens to evade the military draft by seeking refuge in Georgia, and been a conduit for banned goods to enter Russia through its own border with Russia.  

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These developments presented Western policy-makers with a difficult dilemma: should they continue to honour the wishes of the vast majority of the Georgian people by keeping their hopes of EU and NATO membership alive, despite the failings of their Government; or should they hold up further progress towards the EU and NATO at the risk of fuelling Kremlin-backed propaganda that the West cannot be trusted and that Georgia is better off casting its lot with Russia?

Until now, the balance has come down in favour of keeping cooperation alive with Georgia, even to the extent of recently granting Georgia EU candidate status, alongside Ukraine and Moldova – not least since Georgia’s internal struggles are understood to be part of the wider geopolitical conflict between Russia and the West playing out across the region, most brutally in Ukraine. 

The feeling has been that, whatever our concerns about the current Government, we should not turn our backs on the Georgian people as long as they want our support. But, this has allowed the ruling Georgian Dream party to claim that its actions still have Western support, though this is actually very far from the case. 

With these current protests, it seems a line is now being crossed at the international level as well.

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The US, EU and UK have been issuing steadily stronger statements of concern about the situation. A bipartisan group of 14 US senators sent a letter to Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze warning that if the “foreign agents” law is passed, they would be compelled to encourage a shift in US policy towards Georgia.

Today, the US Embassy issued a forthright condemnation of the Government, noting that its choices “have moved the country away from its Euro-Atlantic future” and that “unfortunately, some in the ruling party have chosen to attack the greatest supporters of Georgia’s sovereignty, the United States and the European Union”.  

Given that Georgia’s protestors show no inclination to back down, the question is why has the Government chosen to pursue this course, at the risk of being driven out of office altogether, as the protests gain momentum? After all, the Government did reverse itself one year ago, in the face of strong public opposition, when it first tried to introduce this law.   

The timing of this crisis is particularly suspicious given that it comes just before NATO is due to hold a critical summit in Washington in July, which might decide to advance the membership aspirations of Ukraine.

The EU is also poised to begin accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova. In the current climate, Georgia is almost bound to be excluded from these measures. 

It’s surely no coincidence the Government in March also introduced a bill to curtail LGBT rights, reversing some of its previous measures. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is all a deliberate attempt to sabotage Georgia’s progress. The country with most to gain from this is Russia. 

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What should western policy-makers do in response?

If the Georgian Government no longer cares about EU and NATO reactions, then tougher measures seem required. The US senators’ letter suggested “the possibility of imposing sanctions on individuals, cutting off direct government funding and expanding visa restrictions”. These would most likely be targeted at members of Parliament who vote in favour of the legislation, and the founder of the Georgian Dream party who still pulls all the strings behind the scenes – the billionaire oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili – who made his money in Russia, in an effort to target his wealth directly. 

As reported by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFERL) recently, the Georgian Government may already be preparing for such an eventuality.

Last September, RFERL reports, the Georgian National Bank changed rules limiting its obligations to comply with international sanctions on Georgian nationals. It also acquired seven tons of gold worth $500 million, to be transferred from London to Tbilisi.

In April, the Georgian Parliament fast-tracked legislation to turn Georgia into a tax haven, allowing it to “take a cut of the world’s estimated $11 trillion offshore funds” – many of which, according to Transparency International, Ivanishvili himself invests in or owns. The Georgian branch of Transparency International, incidentally, is one of the NGOs most singled out for criticism by the Government.     

Georgia is due to hold national elections in October. As the crisis escalates, the Government may be tempted to declare a state of emergency, suspend elections, and round up opposition politicians and civil society activists. I believe this would backfire spectacularly – and only bring more people out on the streets.

It could even lead to a 2014 Ukraine Maidan scenario, whereby Ivanishvili, like former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, flees to Moscow, and the Government collapses behind him. 

In theory, this provides an opportunity for the country’s democratic opposition to regroup and take over. The greater danger is that the country descends into further chaos as different factions fight for power, with the Russians egging on the disorder with misinformation from the sidelines, threatening to intervene more directly under the guise of ‘restoring order’, or protecting Russian nationals from alleged Georgian hostility. This is a highly fraught moment, with wider geopolitical implications.     

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While this is primarily about Georgia, as an American resident, I see events there as a cautionary tale for the dangers of allowing any one individual to dominate government to the extent that Ivanishvili has done in Georgia, and as Donald Trump would like to do in the US. 

Trump can at least claim to be seeking to return to power through elections, unlike the unelected Ivanishvili, and will still be subject to the checks and balances built into America’s democracy. But, like many paranoid authoritarian leaders before them, both seem prone to indulge in wild conspiracy theories about secretive plots, to regard their country as their personal fiefdom, national institutions as their personal cohorts, and any opposition as a form of personal affront.  

And, as a British national observing the never-ending cost of Brexit on our politics, economy and society, I can’t help but note the bittersweet irony in seeing the Georgian protestors cloak themselves in the EU flag: a symbol of their hopes and dreams for a better future.  

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