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Georgian Dream Pass ‘Foreign Influence’ law ‘Completing its Seizure of Power’ After Weeks of Violent Protests

For several weeks, Tbilisi has been rocked by violent crackdowns on protesters opposed to a Kremlin-style bill targeting journalists and civil society. Today it passed into law

Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the created by him the Georgian Dream party greets demonstrators during a rally in support of "Russian law" in Tbilisi, Georgia, on April 29. Photo: Associated Press / Alamy
Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the Georgian Dream party, greets demonstrators during a rally in support of the ‘foreign influence’ law in Tbilisi, Georgia, on April 29. Photo: Associated Press / Alamy

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Minutes ago, Georgia’s government passed its Kremlin-style law on ‘foreign influence’ targeting independent journalists and NGOs. After weeks of massive protests, brutal state violence and wild diplomatic spats with international partners, the measures have now brought this historically European-facing country’s relations with the West to their lowest point since independence from the Soviet Union. 

“The Georgian Dream government is completing its seizure of power, subjugating civil society with arbitrary, intrusive and vindictive regulations,” says Hans Gutbrod, a professor of public policy at Tbilisi’s Ilia State University. “What is going on is best described as a coup against Georgia’s constitutional order.”

Since the law was re-tabled in April, following the ruling Georgian Dream party’s abortive first attempt last March, the South Caucasian country has fallen into the throes of a Belarusian-style crackdown against the bill’s intended targets, with dozens of opposition figures hospitalised in attacks by security forces. Hundreds of others have received menacing phone calls, even death threats, while some have even been forced to flee the country ahead of prosecution on draconian charges of inciting a “coup” over their participation in ongoing demonstrations. 

Demonstrators gather in the Square of Heroes during an opposition protest against ‘the Russian law’ in the centre of Tbilisi, Georgia, in May 2024. Photo: Contributor: AP/Alamy

Georgian Dream’s law on ‘foreign influence’ will impose harsh restrictive measures against independent media and NGOs receiving funding from abroad, making it difficult, perhaps even impossible, for the country’s otherwise vibrant civil society to continue operating in the coming months. 

Amid these developments, the EU has signalled the law, a copy of one used by the Putin regime to crush opposition amid the war in Ukraine, spells an end to the immediate hopes of more than 90% of the Georgian public for one day joining the bloc. 

Those with little knowledge of Georgia’s recent history may have found it bewildering how the government of a country part-occupied by Russia since the 1990s, and which itself briefly went to war with Moscow in 2008, now appears to be steering a deepening authoritarian course back to the Kremlin’s sphere of influence. 

Explained: What Could Happen if Georgian Dream Is Ousted Over the ‘Foreign Agents’ Bill As Final Vote Set to Take Place

Protests against a Russian-style law on ‘foreign influence’ have been touted as signs that Georgia is heading for its ‘Maidan’ moment – but experts say the reality is more complex

To understand, it is crucial to grasp the overwhelming control over public life exerted by Bidzina Ivanishvili, the ruling party’s Russian-made oligarch founder, since 2012, and the difficulties he has lately faced attempting to retrieve some of his vast wealth after he claims to have been the victim of fraud. 

Sources with access to the billionaire Georgian businessman’s inner circle have previously explained to Byline Times how Ivanishvili believes his money troubles are the product of “de facto” Western sanctions for his longstanding ties to the Putin regime and corrupt hold over Georgia’s political institutions. 

These sources believe the ‘foreign influence’ law represents an attempt to muzzle domestic watchdogs ahead of Ivanishvili likely transferring his remaining offshore assets to Georgia following changes to the country’s tax regulations that were quietly pushed through last month. 

Others add that the measures – which will adversely impact Georgia’s prospects of one day joining the EU – also indicate a wider geopolitical bet on Ivanishvili’s part ahead of a shift in the global order should Russia emerge victorious in Ukraine – but one that nevertheless falls short of an unconditional, wholesale embrace of the Kremlin. 

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

“Ivanishvili is not pro-Russian or pro-Western – Ivanishvili is just pro-Ivanishvili,” explains Nodar Kharshiladze, founder of Tbilisi think-tank, the Georgian Strategic Analysis Centre. “On the one hand, he believes he’s already under unofficial sanctions by the West, but on the other he’s also afraid of Putin, and he doesn’t want to be directly under Russia’s control because that would limit his influence in Georgia.”

Since the chances of negotiating with Western partners on the law’s provisions were abruptly taken off the table following an unexpectedly abrupt veto from Georgia’s pro-European President Salome Zurabishvili just over a week ago, the US and the EU have both become markedly more bullish in their stance against Georgian Dream. 

In recent days, the State Department has promised travel bans on officials responsible for pushing the law through, as well as a prospective package of sanctions and a freeze on government aid.

Meanwhile, several EU countries, including Estonia, the Netherlands, Czechia and Sweden have also lobbied for restrictive measures including not only sanctions and a suspension of state assistance, but possibly revoking visa-free travel for Georgian citizens. 

UPDATE

Cracks in the Crackdown? Pressure Mounts on Georgian Dream

Amid massive public protests and deepening international pressure, the ruling Georgian Dream party has said it may be willing to negotiate on their controversial ‘Russian law’

Amid the growing cloud of what one analyst has described as “a complete financial and political disaster” for the Georgian public, there does appear to be faint light emerging at the end of the tunnel for the country’s overwhelmingly pro-European electorate.

Byline Times has previously reported on the progress of secret talks being held between representatives of Georgia’s fragmented and otherwise divided opposition groups on forming a new and united front from which to challenge Georgian Dream at parliamentary polls in October. 

On Sunday, which also marked 33 years since Georgia’s independence from the Soviet Union, President Zurabishvili announced The Georgian Charter – a roadmap for bringing together pro-Western political actors to form a short-term technical government should they collectively obtain a popular mandate at the election. 

‘Our Injuries Will Heal, but the Georgian Government’s Reputation Will Not’

Georgia’s accelerating authoritarian slide into Russia’s orbit has now seen its government launch a full-scale Belarusian-style crackdown on opposition voices.

This would allow for an interim coalition to withdraw laws “damaging to [Georgia’s] European path” – including not only the measures on ‘foreign influence’ but also, notably, changes to the country’s tax regulations on offshore assets – with further provisions for a snap election once EU accession negotiations have been opened at some stage in the next one-to-two years. 

According to a source with behind-the-scenes knowledge of the talks, the charter has already been signed by the Lelo, United National Movement, Girchi – More Freedom, Droa, European Georgia and Ahali parties. 

Experts say chances remain low of popular discontent galvanising into a Maidan-style uprising, as speculated by some outside observers, but a new opposition ‘coalition’ has serious potential to see a dynamic shift in Georgia’s politics ahead of the polls. 

Rumours had begun to circulate last week that the ruling party may have been holding onto a trump card, with reports of progress being made on possible negotiations for reunifying the country with its Russian-occupied territories once the ‘foreign influence’ law was passed. 

Georgian President’s Veto of ‘Russian Law’ Sets Stage for Government’s Showdown with Western Partners

President Salome Zurabishvil tonight announced her veto of the ruling Georgian Dream party’s controversial law on ‘foreign influence’ almost two weeks earlier than expected.

Prospects of peaceful reintegration would likely in turn provide Georgian Dream with substantial ammunition to further propagandise the US and EU as representatives of a “global war party” for their long-standing opposition to the recent measures.

However, “it’s a really strange situation,” says Marika Mikiashvili, an opposition Droa party representative. “Has Georgian Dream encouraged these whispers without having any Russian backing on the issue, or is it the case that it’s simply a very small circle of top Russian officials who are privy to the details and others simply do not know about it? I’m inclined to believe that it’s the former.”

Grigory Karasin, chair of Russia’s International Affairs Council, has slammed any suggestion of reunification as “inspired by the devil”, with Aslan Bzhania, de-facto president of Georgia’s western breakaway territory of Abkhazia, also ruling out chances of forming even a confederation with Tbilisi.  

The newly announced Georgian Charter, as well as the unbridled fury still unfolding on the streets of Tbilisi, therefore seem to have posed a simple but increasingly crucial question: whatever the ruling party may plan on selling at the elections, is there anyone left to buy it?

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