Why The Georgian Government Climbed Down On The ‘Foreign Agents’ Law
TBILISI — The planned rollout of Georgian legislation to ensure “transparency of foreign influence,” which critics say reflected some of the ruling coalition’s more dangerous instincts, went up in smoke and tear gas this week.
After two nights of violent protests, the Georgian Dream party said it was withdrawing the controversial “foreign agents” bill from parliament, adding that it would hold consultations to “better explain” the law’s purpose in the future.
So how did the Georgian government get it so wrong?
Pushing Too Quickly
The violent protests in Tbilisi were sparked by the ruling party’s hastily organized vote on the bill, which has been compared to Russia’s 2012 law on the designation of “foreign agents.”
After months of warnings from the draft law’s opponents, the chairman of the Georgian Dream faction in parliament, Mamuka Mdinaradze, proposed a vote on the bill’s first reading late in the day on March 7, two days earlier than previously indicated.
Mdinaradze has been an especially divisive figure since he allowed a visiting Russian lawmaker to sit in his speaker’s chair during a legislative session in 2019, sparking violent protests and a brutal crackdown outside parliament.
The vote, which was adopted in its first reading, was another sign of a rushed process that looked designed to avoid debate and accountability by a party that has governed in uncompromising fashion since the 2012 elections, its first after its founding by Russia-linked billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.
The legislation was drafted by members of the populist People’s Power, a political party founded last August by Georgian Dream party defectors who still support the ruling majority.
Its backers only this week requested that the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body of legal experts, read the bill and offer their nonbinding views on its constitutionality.
By suddenly announcing that the bill was being “unconditionally” withdrawn, Georgian Dream deescalated the current crisis — but tensions are likely to persist over the ruling party and its opponents’ competing visions for the heavily polarized Caucasus country and its nearly 5 million residents.
Underestimating Domestic Anger
Georgian Dream and its People’s Power offshoot have variously dismissed opponents to the law as members of a “radical opposition” or an out-of-touch NGO sector.
Even before the bill landed in parliament, Georgian Dream Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze doubled down after one lawmaker’s characterization of the bill’s fiercest critics as “spies” and “church detractors,” a transparent effort to mobilize supporters of the reactionary and politically powerful Georgian Orthodox Church. According to OC Media, a Tbilisi-based news website, anonymous social media pages were also amplifying those characterizations.
With such accusations against potential opponents, it’s possible that Georgian Dream and its People’s Power partners might have miscalculated the likely reaction once the bill reached a vote.
Former parliamentary deputy and constitutional law expert Vakhtang Khmaladze said that the ruling party was perhaps unaware that the younger generation would be willing to step up in a moment of crisis.
“This is a strong desire for change, more freedom, and as few restrictions as possible…in the new generation. This desire is much stronger than in the older generation,” Khmaladze told RFE/RL’s Georgian Service. “The government didn’t count on [such] an intense, quick, and emotional reaction among young people.”
Moreover, he said, even those who didn’t fully understand the “transparency of foreign influence” bill in any detail comprehended its significance.
The government also failed to see that “the level of public trust in the opponents of these bills was, in general, higher than in those who supported the bills,” according to Khmaladze.
Repercussions In The West
Arguably, the Georgian Dream government became something of a thorn in the side of the European Union long before this bill.
Two years ago, it took mediation from Brussels to forge an agreement — later abandoned — to get Georgian opposition lawmakers to even attend parliament following October 2020 elections that they said were unfair.
Former President Mikheil Saakashvili is still in prison, with his allies saying he is seriously ill. He was joined in custody nearly two years ago by opposition leader Nika Melia, before the EU itself posted bail to secure Melia’s release in a case much derided by Brussels.
And last year, Tbilisi’s failure to meet its commitments on political and other reforms were highlighted by the European Council’s decision to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova but not Georgia.
The “foreign influence” bill has only sullied Georgia’s reputation further. Foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and countless other EU officials have lambasted the bill and warned of its potential impact on Tbilisi’s relations with the bloc.
The United States also expressed its “deep concern,” saying the bill’s adoption would “potentially undermine Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration.”
And following the late-night unrest on March 7, the EU’s language got even more blunt, with European Council President Charles Michel saying he was “strongly concerned about developments in Georgia” and that the “adoption of this ‘foreign influence’ law is not compatible with the EU path which [the] majority in [Georgia] wants.”
The EU delegation in Tbilisi immediately hailed the abandonment of the legislation. “We welcome [the] announcement by the ruling party to withdraw draft legislation on ‘foreign influence.’ We encourage all political leaders in [Georgia] to resume pro-EU reforms, in an inclusive & constructive way and in line with the 12 priorities for Georgia to achieve candidate status.”
Too Close To Putin’s Example?
In Georgia, anti-Russian sentiment can often be strong. Russian troops still control around one-fifth of Georgia’s territory, most of it taken during a lightning war in 2008 that was ostensibly about breakaway efforts in two northeastern republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Georgia has recently seen a massive influx of foreigners as tens of thousands of Ukrainians flee the Kremlin’s unprovoked war on their country, and tens of thousands of Russians escape the draft or just a country at war.
So, it’s an awkward time to be introducing a law that is almost universally seen as an approximation of Russian “foreign agents” legislation, which has been widely criticized for facilitating a crackdown on NGOs, independent media, and critics of the Kremlin.
With Russia’s continuing war on Ukraine, Olesya Vartanyan, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, argued that Tbilisi “sees powerful and worrying parallels” in its own relationship with Moscow. While there is conspicuous support among the public for Ukrainians, the government is worried that “if it upsets the Kremlin, [Georgia] may be left to face the consequences alone.” Thus, Georgian Dream has taken a cautious approach to the war, refusing to publicly support Ukraine or join Western sanctions on Russia.
The public’s impatience with that kind of caution sparked major protests in June 2022 over the ruling Georgian Dream’s failure to enact the kind of reforms that Brussels has demanded to get Tbilisi’s EU bid back on track.
Whatever Moscow’s imprimatur on the Georgian bill, it was widely known as “the Russian law” and seen as just the kind of creeping authoritarianism that Russian President Vladimir Putin has inspired in at least a handful of post-Soviet republics.
Anastasia Mgaloblishvili, of the Berlin-based liberal democratic think tank Scripts, described the introduction of the “foreign agents” law as part of a Russian “clandestine victory” in the Kremlin’s “gray-zone operations against Georgia.”
Not Keeping Their Promises
Constitutional law expert Khmaladze suggested there was another factor, too, in the bill’s demise. “The government didn’t even consider the people’s acceptance [or rejection] of lies,” Khmaladze said.
He pointed to the announcement early on March 7 that the bill wouldn’t be voted on for at least two days, prompting the crowd of demonstrators outside parliament to disperse. Then “they suddenly changed their decision and started debating it,” Khmaladze said. “The authorities probably thought that [the demonstrators] would never come back, but instead we saw that this lie intensified the desire to protest.”
He’s not the first person to accuse Georgian Dream of acting in bad faith on an issue of crucial importance for the country.
Hans Gutbrod, a transparency expert, likened the party’s actions to disgraced former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s about-face on EU integration efforts at the end of 2013, which prompted the Euromaidan street protests and set off a decade of political turmoil and war for Ukraine.
“It is squarely bad faith,” Gutbrod tweeted atop a thread that laid out why he thought so. “You can sensibly call it the ‘we can repress anyone we like’ law.”
Critics point to other key moments in recent years in which Georgian Dream has failed to keep its promises. In 2019, following the brutal dispersal of protests over the Russian lawmaker’s appearance in parliament, Georgian Dream founder Ivanishvili pledged to implement one of the protesters’ demands in the 2020 election: proportional representation with a zero threshold for entry to parliament. It never happened.
Then there was the deal European Council President Michel mediated between Georgian Dream and the opposition in April 2021 to break the opposition boycott of parliament. By the end of July, party Chairman Kobakhidze had announced that Georgian Dream was exiting the agreement.