The Georgian parliament has begun discussing two draft laws on “foreign agents”, both of them endorsed by the ruling majority. Proposed by former Georgian Dream members of parliament, the bills have caused significant internal dissent, and criticism from Georgia’s Western partners.  

The ruling party has invested in unremitting rhetoric on the issue, making it unlikely that the government will reverse course. It is expected major elements of the drafts will become law in the coming weeks. 

The first bill, “On transparency of foreign influence”, purports to ensure transparency and envisages the registration of non-entrepreneurial (non-commercial) legal entities and media outlets, whose income (more than 20%) is received from abroad, as agents of foreign influence. It has been attacked for its close similarity to Russia’s foreign agent law, used to shut down the free press and human rights groups, and which marked a key milepost on the country’s journey to authoritarianism. The legislation has been used to, “smear and punish independent voices,” according to Human Rights Watch

As for the second bill, “On Registration of Foreign Agents”, any individual or legal entity receiving funding from abroad will be obliged to register as a foreign agent. The authors claim that the second draft is an exact copy of the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) against foreign agents, promulgated in 1938 as the US responded to the threat of Nazism and other hostile ideologies. 

The authors argue the draft will enable the state to more efficiently control malign foreign influence in the country. The opposition, NGO sector, and most importantly the country’s foreign partners disagree. The latter responded in a series of statements. Ned Price, US State Department spokesperson, expressed deep concern about the draft law, arguing that it is inconsistent with the aspirations of the Georgian people and their hopes of joining the Euro-Atlantic community. The US Ambassador to Georgia, Kelly Degnan, argued that the proposed laws are different from the existing American laws and will damage the country’s relations with the West.  

The European Union (EU) followed suit. On 28 February, EU Commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatović, expressed her concerns to the Speaker of the Georgian Parliament. Numerous ambassadors from EU member states in Tbilisi have likewise expressed fears about where this might lead Georgia. The United Nations in Georgia has also stated concerns about the future of projects in the country and how the law may undermine Georgian democracy.  

The ruling party states that its goal is to support the media and ensure transparency of income and expenses of non-governmental organizations. Yet in Georgia transparency of media outlets’ income is already ensured by the Law on Broadcasting, and the legality of their expenses is controlled by the Revenue Service. In other words, the intended objective has been achieved.  

Georgia’s Western friends have long worried about the polarization of political life, and the current debate seems set to worsen this tendency. It seems sure to further divide already radicalized sections of Georgian society. Terms like “agent of foreign influence” or “foreign agent”, will be used as tools for stigmatization. The personal data of those who work in media outlets or cooperate with them will be made public. 

Some also argue that the bills are contrary to the EU’s basic principles and, therefore, their adoption would violate Article 78 of the Constitution of Georgia, which obliges constitutional bodies to take all measures within their powers to ensure the full integration of Georgia into the EU and NATO.  

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While the purpose of the bills is disputed by proponents and the opposition, the consequences are fairly clear. The adoption of the law will very likely result in the termination of many foreign grants and foreign donations by NGOs, leading to the closure of programs and the dismissal of Georgian staff. Many NGOs specialized in the reintegration of ethnic minorities into Georgian society and helping people with various disabilities would be among those to shut. 

Yet there lies a much bigger problem for Georgia — the law will have profound foreign policy consequences. The likely adoption comes as Georgia seeks to fulfill 12 EU recommendations to achieve candidate status in late 2023. The foreign agents’ law is likely to do such damage that it will damage the country’s prospects of achieving that historic goal.  

If Georgia needs the West, the West also needs Georgia. A lot. Europe has been seeking increasing energy ties with Azerbaijan to replace the gas supplies shut off because of Russian aggression against Ukraine. Several of those routes — including a new subsea power transmission cable to Romania — run through Georgian territory. In other words, this is an argument that nobody needs, except perhaps Russia.  

This is an extremely delicate issue. An EU refusal to wave on Georgian talks could unleash serious anti-Western sentiment. Indeed, there has always been anti-Western resentment in Georgia, despite the fact that the polls show exceptionally high numbers of pro-Western people. Some in government were stung when the EU denied its candidate status in 2022 when by many standards the country was well ahead of Ukraine and Moldova. Other grievances against the collective West relate to the trauma of 2008 when it was defeated by Russia. While the conflict was part of the West’s long journey to discerning the aggressive heart of Putin’s Russia, it did very little in response to the Russian invasion and its occupation to this day of 20% of Georgian territory.  

Georgia needs to choose which route it wishes to take. Of course, it is unlikely to become a fully pro-Russian state. Those times are gone. The Kremlin has wastefully spent its geopolitical capital elsewhere and can no longer exercise exclusive influence on the South Caucasus, and Georgia in particular.  

But Russia can and will work tirelessly to minimize the Western influence in the region. Delaying Georgia’s journey to the West is a win for Russia, giving it time to reconstitute its power and return to reassert its interests across the region at a later date. 

Emil Avdaliani is a professor at European University and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Georgian think-tank, Geocase. 

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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