Georgia: danger averted, for now
A proposed law to make civil society organisations and media outlets receiving foreign funding register as ‘foreign agents’ in Georgia has been withdrawn following mass protests and a concerted civil society campaign. The backlash highlighted that these laws, applied in Russia and imitated by other states, are being used to stigmatise and restrict the work of civil society. In Georgia, the introduction of the law and campaign against it raised broader concerns about the extent of Russian influence in the country. Civil society will keep working to defend and strengthen democracy and human rights – but in a climate of growing government hostility, it fears the attacks aren’t over.
Georgian civil society can breathe a sigh of relief. A proposed repressive law that would have severely worsened the space for activism has been shelved – for now. But the need for vigilance remains.
The cause for concern was the introduction of a draft ‘foreign agents’ law. Had it been passed, the law would have required any civil society organisations (CSOs) and media outlets in Georgia receiving over 20 per cent of funding from outside the country to register as a ‘foreign agent’. Non-compliance would have been punishable with fines and even jail sentences of up to five years.
The bill’s introduction to parliament sparked huge protests and a campaign joined by more than 400 Georgian CSOs. Over 60 CSOs and media outlets vowed to defy the law if passed. The proposed law sparked widespread international concern too, including from global civil society and the European Union (EU), which Georgia hopes to join. Georgia’s president, Salome Zourabichvili, who is increasingly at odds with the government, pledged not to sign the law if parliament passed it.
The law’s proponents, including Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, claimed it was modelled on one passed in the USA in 1938, which requires people and organisations lobbying for foreign governments or other foreign interests to publicly disclose they’re doing so. The US law was introduced to try to expose the insidious spread of Nazi propaganda in the run-up to the Second World War, and wasn’t targeted at CSOs.
For civil society it was clear the source of inspiration was much more recent and closer to home: Russia’s 2012 law, since extended several times, which allows the state to declare a ‘foreign agent’ any person or organisation it judges to be under foreign influence. Introduced in retaliation for protests that greeted Vladimir Putin’s return for a third term as president, the law has been used extensively to stigmatise civil society, independent media and any number of people merely for expressing dissent. It’s been imitated by other repressive states looking for ways to stifle civil society.
In Georgia, as in Russia, the ‘foreign agent’ terminology is deeply suggestive of espionage and treachery. Any organisation it’s applied to can expect to be instantly viewed with suspicion. This meant the law wouldn’t just bring more intensive state scrutiny for CSOs and media organisations; it would also have stigmatised them.
Alarmingly, the proposed law was no isolated event: the government has been ramping up the rhetoric about groups ‘opposing the interests of the country’ and the need to save Georgia from foreign influence.
The initial proposal for the law came from a populist political faction, People’s Power, that broke away from the ruling party, Georgian Dream, but continues to work in coalition with it. It was enthusiastically taken up by Georgian Dream. One of the apparent motives was to target critics of the powerful Orthodox Church – a troubling idea, since it suggested the church should be placed above criticism, and people would only ask questions about the church as a result of receiving foreign funding,
People’s Power has a track record of criticising foreign funding, particularly from the USA, which it claims undermines Georgia’s sovereignty, and has accused CSOs and the main opposition party of being US agents.
CSOs insist they already adhere to high standards of accountability and transparency, making any further regulations unnecessary. They point to the vital role civil society has played over the years in establishing democracy in Georgia, providing essential services the state fails to offer and helping to introduce important human rights protections, such as laws to recognise women’s rights and challenge discrimination.
This work necessarily requires financial support, and since there are few resources available for civil society in Georgia, that means foreign funding, including from the EU and other international bodies – sources the government is also happy to receive funding from.
Civil society also highlights the relative freedoms Georgians enjoy compared to many post-Soviet states. This has made the country an important hub where exiled civil society from other countries is free to work. They want to keep it that way.
The power of protest
The scale of the reaction took the government by surprise. Many states around the world have enacted repressive civil society laws, and it’s often hard to get the public to take an interest in what might seem arcane legal matters. But the issue cut through in Georgia because of the larger concerns many people have about Russian influence, heightened by the war on Ukraine.
Our key message was that our government may have pro-Russian course, but our people do not, and we don’t intend to be part of the Russian Federation ever again.
Russian influence is an ever-present issue in Georgian politics. The two countries went to war in 2008, and to this day two breakaway parts of Georgia – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – claim autonomy and receive heavy Russian support. Georgian Dream, founded by billionaire business tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, has been in power since 2012, having defeated the United National Movement, which had its origins in the 2003 Rose Revolution, when people ousted the Soviet-era ruler Eduard Shevardnadze. Georgian Dream has an official policy of pragmatism towards Russia while also cultivating links with the EU – but opponents accuse it and People’s Power of being too close to Russia.
In Georgia, many see the country’s future as lying within a democratic Europe and fear returning to Russia’s domination. This made the proposed law about a fundamental question of national identity.
That’s the reason, when parliament started discussing the bill in early March, thousands gathered outside it over several nights, with many waving Georgian and EU flags and chanting ‘no to the Russian law’.
When the bill passed its hurried first reading it sparked some violent clashes. Some people threw stones and the police responded disproportionately with teargas, stun grenades, pepper spray and water cannon. Scores of people were detained. But instead of going home, people kept protesting and the government feared the situation could spiral out of its control. So, at least for the time being, it backed down.
Voices from the frontline
Nino Ugrekhelidze is co-founder of the CEECCNA (Central Eastern Europe, Caucasus, and Central and North Asia) Collaborative Fund and Guram Imnadze is director of the Democracy and Justice Programme of the Social Justice Center.
The government is doing everything it can to delegitimise CSOs as local actors voicing real local needs. They don’t want the public to listen to us when we criticise the government and provide information that is true and in the interest of the country – they want them to believe that we are the ones lying to them.
This is part of a larger government stigmatising campaign against civil society and independent media, which gained momentum over the past few months.
It took some effort to mobilise against the bill because civil society had been demonised for so long already, and many people did not want to support ‘foreign agents’. But our key message was that our government may have pro-Russian course, but our people do not, and we don’t intend to be part of the Russian Federation ever again. This connected with a widespread sentiment of Georgian people.
As a result of the protests, the bill was recalled on 10 March. That day we realised that if we come together, things can change. There was a spirit of resistance, unity, dignity and solidarity in the protests. People who were not necessarily politicised became interested in politics. And it all started because civil society came together to stand up against a bill that posed an existential threat.
Protesters connected in a very well-articulated way the situation in Georgia with the plight of Ukraine, and understood this as a fight against Russian political interests trying to absorb us as a country. That’s why they also showed solidarity with Ukraine, singing their anthem and displaying pro-Ukraine messages.
The way young Georgians reacted gives us hope for the future. The way they came together, the way they protested, the messages they conveyed – it was so politically consistent and coherent. They protested, they resisted, and when the protest was over, they even cleaned the public space after themselves. They were truly amazing.
This is an edited extract of our interview with Guram and Nine. Read the full interview here.
The immediate threat may have passed, but it isn’t game over. The government hasn’t said the law was a bad idea, merely that it failed to explain properly to the public why it was needed, and withdrew it to reduce confrontation.
Georgia was one of three countries that formally applied to join the EU following the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While the other two states, Moldova and Ukraine, were quickly granted EU candidate status, Georgia wasn’t.
The EU cited the need for both economic and political reforms. This includes measures to reduce corruption, organised crime and oligarchal influence, lessen political polarisation, strengthen the judiciary, protect journalists, improve the protection of human rights and enable civil society to play a stronger role in decision-making processes. These are all areas of civil society advocacy, which would have been made much harder had the law been passed. In introducing it, the government took steps further away from the EU and made clear it doesn’t trust civil society.
This raises concerns the bill could come back in some revised form, or other restrictions on civil society could be introduced. In numerous countries, the kind of verbal attacks on civil society recently made by the government have been followed by restrictions. Recent years have also seen a rise in the use of administrative fines against civil society. Further, Prime Minister Garibashvili has recently spoken about plans to imitate Russia in yet another way, by introducing a law to ban so-called LGBTQI+ propaganda. Such a law would penalise LGBTQI+ people and the civil society that works to defend rights.
But Garibashvili should be more attentive to the message of the protests. By taking to the streets in numbers, people told the government they’re paying attention, disagree with its current direction and are willing to hold it accountable – and they forced it to back down. Civil society has shown its power, and deserves to be listened to rather than treated with suspicion.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Georgian government should commit to not bringing back the proposed ‘foreign agents’ law in any form and to stopping its politically motivated attacks on civil society.
The government should commit to working with civil society on the package of political reforms needed to move the country towards EU accession.
Governments with ‘foreign agents’ laws should review and revise them to ensure that they can’t be used to hinder the legitimate functions of civil society.
Cover photo by Daro Sulakauri/Getty Images