CAUCASUS BLOG: What's behind the Georgian government's revival of the foreign agents law?

CAUCASUS BLOG: What's behind the Georgian government's revival of the foreign agents law?
Georgians have already begun to take to the streets in protest. / Tornike Mandaria/bne IntelliNews
By Tornike Mandaria in Tbilisi April 11, 2024

Most Georgians had thought that the "foreign agent" saga was behind them, as the ruling Georgian Dream party assured citizens they wouldn't revive the controversial bill after facing massive protests last year. But now—dubbed Russian Law 2.0—the bill is back, targeting civil society and media supported by Western funds.

On April 3, the ruling Georgian Dream party announced the reintroduction of the bill that would require non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and media to declare if they receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad.

This year's bill mirrors last year's, which incited major turmoil within the country and drew condemnation from the West. The only difference is that the government has changed the term "foreign agent" to "organisation pursuing the interests of a foreign power".

President Salome Zurabishvili has called the ruling party’s actions a "sabotage of the European path and the future of Georgia".

In a predominantly pro-Western nation, why does the government seek to minimise Western engagement in supporting civil society and democratic governance?

Georgian Dream has been in power since 2012 and has steadily tightened its grip on every branch of power over the years. But this year's parliamentary elections in October poses one of the party's  toughest challenges, as it will be held under a fully proportional system and could result in the country’s first-ever coalition government.

The biggest threat keeping the ruling party from full victory is Georgia’s vibrant civil society and media, which is heavily dependent on funding from Western governments and institutions and which the government regards as part of the opposition.

The government is therefore trying to weaken trust in national and international election monitoring groups. With a fragmented opposition and civil society under pressure, Georgian Dream aims to increase its changes of securing a convincing victory in the elections.

The new bill comes as the government is already accused by critics of turning Georgia into a hybrid regime. Without civil and legislative safeguards and institutional structures ensuring fair, not merely competitive, elections, Georgian democracy risks becoming a mere facade.

Since the Soviet Union's fall, Georgia has often seen checks and balances fail because ruling parties tried to bend the rules to stay in power.

"With every successive regime, we have returned again and again to a single-party system that controls more and more institutions," Zurabishvili said in a recent interview.

The president was elected to the largely symbolic post in 2018 with the backing of Georgian Dream but has since become an outspoken critic of the ruling party due to its construction of an increasingly illiberal hybrid regime and their divergent geopolitical views.

Since independence, Georgians pushed to align with the West, which was seen as the only way to progress and guarantee independence and sovereignty. This decision was not solely based on values but was also pragmatic. There have been ups and downs, but the commitment to moving westward has remained constant. 

However, in the ruling party, there is a perception of Western decline. Tbilisi's recent strategic partnership with Beijing and special ties with Budapest suggest that the regime is seeking alternative alliances, which come without scrutiny of internal affairs. 

Despite officially continuing to seek eventual EU membership, the country’s leadership is pushing back against European criticism of democratic backsliding, sidestepping crucial reforms and turning to populist nationalism.

Ironically, Georgia’s illiberal turn comes at a time when the country’s European prospects are better than ever. The EU granted Georgia membership candidate status in December 2024 to prevent the country from being further drawn back into Russia's orbit. 

With candidate status in hand, leaders of the Georgian Dream party may anticipate a significant decrease in protest levels compared to a year ago.

However, Georgians have already begun to take to the streets in protest. Civil society and independent media representatives say they will never register as "foreign agents" or as "pursuing the interests of a foreign power”, arguing that their primary objective is, in fact, to uphold democratic standards and serve as watchdogs.