Foreign Agents: The “Pro-Russian” Law Blocking Georgia’s Path to Europe

Written by Anton Khimiak, Analyst at HWAG/UCMC

The Georgian authorities have put an end to the saga surrounding the scandalous draft law on “Transparency of Foreign Influence,” which could lower Tbilisi’s European integration barriers. The parliament overrode President Salome Zurabishvili’s veto, the final act of confrontation between the ruling Georgian Dream and the opposition over the bill (84 votes in favor, 30 against). Thus, the Georgian law on foreign agents will go into effect in early June.

According to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the bill’s adoption will have a negative impact on Georgia’s path to the EU. German Foreign Minister Annalena Burbock stated, “The Georgian government is once again moving the country away from Europe and ignoring the wishes of the overwhelming majority who take to the streets every day for a European future.” Carl Bildt, former Swedish Foreign Minister and co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations, was less diplomatic: “As the ruling party uses its majority in parliament to override the presidential veto of the ‘Russian law’, Georgia’s path to the EU is now over. Tragic, but true”.

In this regard, analysts from the Hybrid Threats Group assess the risks of an attack on Georgian media freedom, as well as Moscow’s hidden interests.

Law versus law

To submit the bill to parliament, the authorities used the services of the satellite faction, Power of the People. In August 2022, the political force split from the ruling Georgian Dream. However, it did not form an opposition, but rather became the voice of Russian propaganda, frequently criticizing the West.

In the information campaign in support of the bill, pro-government parliamentarians pointed out that it was based on the American law “FARA” (Foreign Agents Registration Act). The stricter version of the document, which allowed for up to 5 years behind bars, was dubbed “American” by pro-government commentators, while the more lenient version was dubbed “Georgian”. Ultimately, the parliament approved the “light” version of the bill, which only provides for financial penalties for noncompliance.

“I want to assure everyone that no one will expect a Maidan in Georgia. I’d like to remind you of the Maidan’s results for Ukraine. Back then, the Ukrainian government was appointed from outside, first once and then twice, and as a result, the person who appointed the government from outside did not accept responsibility for the events that occurred in Ukraine afterward.”

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze stated

The law applies to almost every type of non-governmental organization, including religious, humanitarian, scientific, cultural, and media groups. The draft law requires non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and media outlets that receive more than 20% of their funding from foreign sources to register as “agents of foreign influence.” Strict financial monitoring will enable the authorities to gain control of the country’s information sector.

This approach is similar to the Russian practice of legislating the suppression of dissent and opposition voices. For example, Russian “foreign agents” labeled by the Kremlin are required to accompany all of their publications, including those on foreign information resources, with a message about their status as “enemy of the people” assigned by Putin’s Russia.

An example of a disclaimer inserted by the Russian opposition

According to experts, the Georgian law is an attempt to limit the potential for protests and expand repression of the opposition ahead of the upcoming elections.

The tightening of regulations may indeed have an impact on Georgian pro-Western organizations’ ability to lobby for their position and cause distortions in the media. The law on foreign agents will strengthen Georgian authorities’ administrative resources, which will have a negative impact on the country’s democratic level, particularly in the run-up to the October 2024 parliamentary elections.

The law on “foreign agents” could allow for the suppression of independent media and civil society organizations, similar to Russia’s practice. Over 60 media outlets have announced that they will not comply, highlighting the tension. The public protest on April 28, 2024, was announced simultaneously by 126 non-governmental organizations.

The catalyst of the protests

The struggle between protesters and authorities in Georgia, just a few months before the elections, has polarized society. The draft law on “foreign agents” has sparked a split and has the potential to significantly increase protest voting.

It is worth noting that elections in Georgia’s modern history have been held under similar conditions of intense conflict. For example, after opposition protests were dispersed in late 2007, then-President Mikheil Saakashvili resigned but won early elections with a significant margin of double. In the subsequent parliamentary elections, the president’s party, the United National Movement, received the majority of votes.

Mikheil Saakashvili celebrates his victory in the 2008 elections (Reuters)

It should be noted that, according to international observers, elections were held almost without incident during Saakashvili’s tenure. Today, it is likely that in a scenario that is detrimental to its own parliamentary prospects, the Georgian Dream will resort to fraud, potentially causing even more public opposition.

Despite the fact that Georgian society condemns Russia’s aggression against Ukraine (in particular, 77% believe Russia is the greatest threat to Georgia) and overwhelmingly supports EU and NATO membership, the ruling Georgian Dream party has chosen the opposite path, which is in Russia’s interests. As a result, we can expect protests to continue and intensify, particularly following the selective beatings of opposition leaders.

Dismantling democracy to appease Russia?

Photo from the news about the dismissal of some anchors from a pro-government TV channel in protest— Ехо Кавказу

The use of intimidation narratives explains why opposition parties have been unable to gain significant support. For example, the United National Movement is the largest opposition party, but its ties to Mikheil Saakashvili make it difficult to rally enough support to defeat the Georgian Dream. The pro-government media portrays the former president and his party as “war mongers” who threaten to reignite the conflict in Russia-occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder of the Georgian Dream and billionaire oligarch, accuses opposition forces of attempting to “open a second front of war in Georgia.” Such rhetoric seeks to position the ruling party as a guarantor of stability and sovereignty, capitalizing on public fears and fueling divisions in Georgian society.

At the same time, Georgia’s internal political dynamics provide opportunities for Russia to maintain its geopolitical influence over Tbilisi.

  • According to Deputy Secretary of State Jim O’Brien, Georgia is one of five countries that help Russia circumvent sanctions, as evidenced by the significant increase in exports from Georgia to Russia. 
  • Moscow does not want a new point of tension on its borders, which could occur if an anti-Russian force wins the election, particularly after part of the Black Sea Fleet was transferred to occupied Abkhazia.
  • The Georgian Dream’s anti-Western rhetoric allows the Kremlin to maintain the narrative of a “multipolar world” in the international arena (the draft law on “foreign agents” is primarily biased against influence from the EU and the US).
Russian military port under construction in occupied Abkhazia near the city of Ochamchira.

The Kremlin has already accused the West of hypocrisy and “Russophobia” for criticizing Georgia’s law on “foreign agents,” and Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that “Russia sees an open interference in Georgia’s internal affairs from the outside.”

In the future, Russia may provide Georgian Dream with information and materials to help it prepare for the elections. Davit Zedelashvili of the Research Institute Gnomon Wise, considering the possibility of a “Belarusian scenario” of protests, expresses doubt that the Georgian Dream will prevail if the scale of protests increases. The Georgian army’s unwillingness to aid in the repression of its own citizens, as well as the insufficiently powerful security apparatus, make a violent scenario unlikely.

The Georgian protests, which erupted in response to public concern about the government’s actions and growing authoritarian tendencies, have become a clear symbol of Georgian society’s deep divide. They reflect not only dissatisfaction with specific political actions, but also a broader desire for democratic reforms, the rule of law, and a pro-Western development trajectory.

The ruling Georgian Dream political party is under intense pressure as protests stymie efforts to strengthen authoritarian tendencies. On the one hand, the government is attempting to assert its authority by tightening control over key institutions and restricting freedom of expression. On the other hand, it is deviating further from democratic principles, necessitating victory in the upcoming elections.

In this context, Russia’s role may be critical. Moscow has a vested interest in maintaining influence in Georgia, and it can provide the Georgian Dream with the economic and political support it requires to maintain power.