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International Relations and Human Rights Observatory


Foreign Agents Law in Georgia: A Wake-Up Call in an Unstable Region

The approval of the Foreign Agents Law in Georgia has resulted in protests and increased levels of political violence and polarization, with a government determined to move forward at any cost, knowing it has electoral support. Promoting fear and paranoia about supposed foreign influence resembles the Cold War more than the current reality, in which Georgia aspires to join the European Union, a bloc whose headquarters are, of course, abroad.
By Ignacio E. Hutin

It’s not the first time Georgians have protested in the streets. Rather, demonstrating is a custom, a necessity for a people whose first independence in 1918 was cut short by the Bolshevik takeover in 1921. There were protests in 1989, when pro-independence supporters were repressed by Soviet forces, resulting in 21 deaths; or in 2003, when fraudulent elections marked the beginning of the Rose Revolution, leading to a change in government, flag, and alliances. Or like in 2023, when Georgian Dream (GD), the party in power for 12 years, attempted what it has now succeeded: passing a law on foreign agents. Last year, the government backed down in the face of protests and international demands. Not this time. This time, the rallies and pressure from, among others, the European Union were not enough, and the law was passed in Parliament on the second attempt after the President vetoed it.

Officially called the "On Transparency of Foreign Influence" law requires non-governmental organizations and media outlets that receive at least 20% of their funding from abroad to register as "organizations pursuing the interests of a foreign power." Those who refuse to disclose sensitive and confidential information will face significant financial penalties and even criminal charges that could lead to detention. In practice, this means restrictions on press freedom, and civil society participation, and aims to delegitimize the activities of organizations that might question a government seeking its fourth consecutive term in October. Polls predict a significant lead for GD, up to 20% ahead of the coalition led by the United National Movement, which governed from 2004 to 2012.

This process is part of a curious context: a party with such strong social support governs a country where the overwhelming majority of the population is in favor of joining the European Union (86%, according to the latest survey by the International Republican Institute, last October) and NATO (80%). And nearly 80% of Georgians see Russia as the main political threat to their country, especially considering that one-fifth of Georgian territory is occupied by Moscow.

At the same time, GD has indirectly benefited from Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine since February 2022: economic sanctions against Moscow have meant that Georgia, among many others, has become a major recipient of Russian investments, has become home to about 30,000 new companies, and a destination for outsourced goods to and from the European Union. Georgian exports to Russia increased from $47 million in 2012 to $657 million in 2023, while imports from Russia grew from $477 million to $1.744 billion over the same period. In 2023, 10% of Georgia’s GDP came from Russia, and in 2022, Russian direct investment in Georgia reached a record $108 million.

These economic figures may help explain why GD has shown a certain rapprochement towards Moscow after 2022, which included not imposing sanctions, refusing to supply weapons to Ukraine, banning entry into the country for Russian opposition figures, or accusing Ukrainian leaders of "not having prevented the war," even being more critical of the West and Ukraine than of the Kremlin itself. Meanwhile, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder and informal leader of the party, as well as the richest man in the country whose wealth represents a third of the country’s GDP, remains in contact with Moscow authorities.

No representative of GD will explicitly deny the European aspirations or formally support Russia, because that would mean going against the overwhelming majority of the population. However, as their power consolidates, the party’s less democratic tendencies become increasingly visible, making comparisons with the giant neighboring country inevitable. After all, Russia has had a "foreign agents’ law" since 2012, although it applies to any amount of foreign funding, not the 20% minimum stipulated by the Georgian law. In Russia, this law led, among many other things, to the closure of the human rights organization Memorial, founded in 1989 and co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022.

GD insists that the goal is to limit foreign influence in the country’s internal affairs, even alleging that various NGOs are conspiring to overthrow the government. Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze claimed that these organizations are "promoting religious extremism" and "LGBT propaganda."

On April 25, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning the then-draft law, urging the Georgian legislative power to halt its review, and stating that negotiations on membership in the continental bloc will not be opened as long as the law is in force. The adopted clauses also called for sanctions against Bidzina Ivanishvili, demanded the release of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, imprisoned since 2021 for abuse of power and corruption, requested that the European Commission review the visa-free regime for Georgian citizens, and demanded the withdrawal of proposed constitutional amendments that would ban sex changes and adoption by homosexual couples, as well as "meetings aimed at popularizing family or intimate relationships between people of the same sex."

Already in 2022, in the context of the onset of the large-scale invasion of Ukraine, this country, along with Moldova, was officially accepted as a candidate to join the European Union following an emergency application. However, Georgia, which had submitted the same application, was denied candidacy. The EU demanded a series of 12 reforms aimed at greater democratization, addressing "the issue of political polarization," implementing "a commitment to ’de-oligarchization’", and ensuring "civil society participation in decision-making processes at all levels," among other issues.

Finally, Tbilisi received official candidate status to join the bloc in December 2023, but the EU’s demands sounded an alarm for a government whose democratic standards are progressively declining. It is certainly not comparable to the Soviet period nor to the government of Eduard Shevardnadze, which ended after the Rose Revolution in 2003. However, democratic aspirations are jeopardized as GD begins to accumulate more and more power. The disputed 2020 elections, which were followed by a parliamentary boycott by the opposition, also served as a wake-up call.

The latest Human Rights Watch report highlights "restrictions and attacks on press freedom," "police abuses," and the lack of protection for sexual minorities. On the other hand, Freedom House mentions "oligarchic influence (that) affects the country’s political affairs" and "opposition figures (who) have faced physical attacks," persistent corruption, and a lack of independence in the Georgian judiciary.

A government that has been in power for more than a decade and knows it has sufficient popular support and economic resources can deviate from the path taken in 2003 when Georgia began its reforms and ceased to be a former Soviet republic to become simply a republic. The path of GD does not seem coincidental. Instead, it reflects the precedents of other parties that, in similar scenarios, decided to go further, restricting freedom of expression, civil society activity, and political opposition to consolidate authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes. In addition to the aforementioned case of Russia in 2012, one can add Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega, president between 1985 and 1990 and since 2007, passed his foreign agents’ law in 2020. Two years later, almost 800 non-governmental organizations and foundations of all kinds had been shut down.

In Venezuela, the "Law on the Oversight, Regularization, Performance, and Financing of Non-Governmental Organizations and Similar Entities" has been under second discussion since January. This bill would require civil society organizations to disclose their beneficiaries and activities to the state. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) urged not to approve the law, stating that it "would have the effect of limiting the right to association, citizen participation in public interest matters, and the defense of human rights." However, back in 2010, with Hugo Chávez still in power, the "Law for the Defense of National Sovereignty and Self-Determination" prohibited funding to associations "with political purposes" through resources from foreign governments, or public or private foreign entities.

In Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, the "Law on the Transparency of Organizations Receiving Support from Abroad" has existed since 2017, requiring those receiving at least $20,000 annually (as per the 2024 exchange rate) from abroad to register, disclose funding sources, and indicate in their publications that they receive such income. Robert Fico, who has been governing Slovakia since last October, has made significant overtures towards Russia, including calls to end financial and military support to Ukraine and block its access to NATO if that possibility arises. Currently, Slovakia is debating a bill almost identical to that of neighboring Hungary, except the minimum income threshold for organizations would be €5,000.

Lastly, Nayib Bukele, President of El Salvador, also proposed a similar law in 2021, but it has not made significant progress, at least not yet.

These types of projects, when presented by parties that know they are strong, weaken democracy and institutions, and restrict civil society’s ability to oversee their governments. The approval of the Foreign Agents Law in Georgia has resulted in protests and increased levels of political violence and polarization, with a government determined to move forward at any cost, knowing it has electoral support. Promoting fear and paranoia about supposed foreign influence resembles the Cold War more than the current reality, in which Georgia aspires to join the European Union, a bloc whose headquarters are, of course, abroad.

Although these changes do not necessarily mean that the Caucasus country is heading towards a dictatorship, they should serve as a wake-up call. Especially considering the precedents and how fragile stability can be in a region marked by transitions, political conflicts, wars, long-standing disputes, and the influence of a giant neighbor that today invades Ukraine but could invade other countries tomorrow.

Ignacio E. Hutin
Ignacio E. Hutin
Advisory Councelor
Master in International Relations (University of Salvador, 2021), Graduate in Journalism (University of Salvador, 2014), specialized in Leadership in Humanitarian Emergencies (National Defense University, 2019) and studied photography (ARGRA, 2009). He is a focused in Eastern Europe, post-Soviet Eurasia and the Balkans. He received a scholarship from the Finnish State to carry out studies related to the Arctic at the University of Lapland (2012). He is the author of the books Saturn (2009), Deconstruction: Chronicles and Reflections from Post-Communist Eastern Europe (2018), Ukraine/Donbass: A Renewed Cold War (2021), and Ukraine: Chronicle from the Frontlines (2021).

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