What is in store for Georgia divided by protests over “foreign agent” law?

  • 21 May, 09:16

By journalist-researcher Artur Stoian

Georgia is again in the grip of turmoil amid the nationwide protests against the controversial “foreign agent” bill. The bill proposed by the ruling Georgia Dream party has sparked thousands-strong protests, creating further division in the deeply polarized Georgia due to the volatile political environment in the South Caucasus republic. Around 500,000 protesters took part in the rally against the proposed bill on May 11. The bill caused massive uproar amongst Georgians, especially amongst the politically active youth who learn towards the West and are critical of the government’s alleged pro-Russian policies. After being passed by the Parliament on May 14, the bill set off more protests, with protesters demanding the governments resignation and burning Russian flags. With this bill, Georgias future trajectory was put at stake. Georgians now have to make a choice as to whether the country will go forth with its European integration program or derail its EU aspirations in favour of Russia. The protests are the largest in Georgia in the past several decades. The scale of the protests is comparable to the pro-independence movement of the late 1980s, with the number of protesters exceeding those during the Rose Revolution of 2003.

What is “foreign agent” bill?

Under the bill, organizations receiving more than a fifth of their funding from abroad would be registered as “organizations serving the interests of foreign powers”. Opponents of the bill believe that it could be used to threaten civil liberties and to silence NGOs and the media. The bill has drawn condemnation both from the country’s civil society and its Western allies. Officials in Brussels and the United States have open-wordly condemned the bill, warning that it could undermine democracy in Georgia and derail the country’s integration to the West. Several major partners of Georgia, namely the United States State Department, as well as the European Commission, warned the country of the consequences if they proceed further with their policies. Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili who vetoed the bill last week, has condemned the bill as “crushing civil society” and compared it to a similar bill passed in Russia. However, proponents of the bill believe it serves Georgia’s interests and is for the benefit of the country’s security. Some have compared the “foreign agent” bill to FARA, the Foreign Agents Registration Act, that was passed in the United States back in 1938. The ruling party argues that Georgia as a sovereign country is entitled to regulate foreign funding for the organizations that operate within the jurisdictions of the country. Despite the government’s assurances that the bill serves Georgia’s interests, the opponents of the ruling Georgian Dream party assert that the foreign influence legislation may serve as a tool to suppress opposing voices.

Georgia’s anti-Kremlin path

Despite Georgian people’s pro-Western aspirations, Russia remains a major player in the country and is also perceived as the country’s arch enemy by many Georgians. The ties with Russia were compromised after the clashes in the early 1990s, that were followed by Russia gaining rights to retain its military infrastructure in the regions of Vaziani, Gudauta (in the breakaway territory of Abkhazia which is currently controlled by Russia), Batumi (Adjara), and Akhalkalaki. The deterioration of ties with Russia reached deadlock after former Minister of Justice Mikheil Saakashvili’s ascend to power following the Colour Revolution in 2003. Saakashvili’s key foreign policy mission was to bring Georgia closer to the Western political and security institutions, specifically to NATO and the European Union as well as strengthen regional energy and economic cooperation to counterbalance Russian influence in the region. This policy led to the closure of the Russian military bases until 2008. However, the conflict that erupted in August of 2008 completely prevented the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia and thus the two breakaway region’s reintegration to Georgia was prevented as the regions were occupied by Russia in its blatant act of invasion of the sovereign Georgian territories. The invasion of Georgia’s sovereign territories speeded up the country’s NATO integration.

However, authoritarian tendencies and consolidation of power by then-president Saakashvili significantly diminished his reputation amongst the voters and led to his eventual loss in the 2013 elections.

Russia’s gradual grip on Georgia

After winning the election in 2013, the “Georgian Dream “party led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili who is known to have ties with Russia, reassured Georgians that they would continue abiding by the pro-western geopolitical orientation set by their predecessors. Despite taking steps towards EU integration, the ruling party has also been courting the Kremlin. Under the Georgian Dream party, Georgians obtained a right to visa-free travel to the Schengen area. Another remarkable milestone was granting the EU Candidacy status to Georgia, which led to widespread festivities throughout the country. Overall, the Georgian Dream and its leadership have openly declared the integration with Western institutions as the party’s primary strategic goal. At the same time, the leading political figures from the party have been resorting to anti-Western rhetoric as well as distancing themselves from some of the major Western initiatives, particularly in the Ukraine issue. The party’s anti-Western policies culminated in the adoption of the ‘’Foreign Agent Law”, also dubbed as the ‘’Russian Law’’ due to its close association with the similar law passed by the Kremlin. This despite the fact that the government denies any connection between ‘’Foreign Agent Law’’ and the Kremlin. With this controversial law, Georgia Dream crossed all red lines set by the active Georgian civil society.

Ukraine scenario in Georgia?

With Georgian society navigating a critical juncture and witnessing a surge in violence amid harsh measures against mass protests, numerous analysts are drawing parallels to Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution of 2013-14. Some even question if Georgia is undergoing its version of the "Yanukovych moment," referring to the pro-Kremlin Ukrainian president's flight to Russia amid prolonged unrest. These two scenarios share striking similarities. In both instances, pro-Western political factions and civil society in Georgia rallied against an increasingly authoritarian and Kremlin-aligned government to safeguard fundamental democratic rights. The regime’s harsh response only galvanized greater public support for the protests. Georgia’s political landscape also offers insights into Russia’s potential strategies if its invasion of Ukraine succeeds. The Georgian Dream party rose to power in 2012, still grappling with the scars of Russia’s 2008 invasion. Over the past 12 years, the party has steadily tightened its grip on power, increasingly promoting pro-Kremlin and anti-Western stances despite prevailing pro-Western sentiment. This blueprint appears akin to Russia’s intentions for Ukraine at the outset of the full-scale invasion in February 2022. Moscow initially aimed to dismantle the Kyiv government and install a compliant regime, forsaking Ukraine’s Western integration in favour of aligning firmly with the Kremlin, despite overwhelming public support for a European future. Although Russia’s initial military blitz faltered, the conflict persists, indicating Moscow’s persistent efforts to subdue Ukraine. Recent reports of a thwarted Russian plot to assassinate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and other senior officials suggest the Kremlin still seeks to establish a more amiable regime in Kyiv. Russian policymakers are likely drawing from their experiences in Georgia over the past decade as they confront intense public opposition throughout Ukrainian society. Meanwhile, protests continue in Georgia as the nation gears up for parliamentary elections in October. The fate of the Foreign Agents Law is anticipated to significantly shape the upcoming vote, with accusations against Georgian Dream officials of intending to exploit the legislation to suppress dissent. The outcome of the October election will provide critical insights into Georgia’s future geopolitical trajectory and serve as a verdict on Moscow’s endeavours to reassert influence despite the lingering scars of the 2008 invasion and the occupation of Georgian territories. This holds substantial implications for the broader southern Caucasus region and could also influence Russia’s approach to the conflict in Ukraine.

It is worth noting that, for the first time since the mid-2000s Georgia’s geopolitical orientation has been fundamentally reconsidered in light of public discontent and the deterioration of relations with the key Western allies and institutions. At this point, it is crucial not to rule out potential scenarios where the country is simply reorienting itself from the West back to the geopolitical orbit of Russia. This will not only upset the fragile balance of power in the whole region but also will compel its regional partners to re-examine the foundations of regional security architecture. 

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