EU-Georgia relations hit a new low as Tbilisi warns of foreign-funded power-grab

EU-Georgia relations hit a new low as Tbilisi warns of foreign-funded power-grab
Thousands of people have been staging almost daily protests for around a month against the bill, which they say is authoritarian and inspired by similar legislation in Russia. / bne IntelliNews/Tornike Mandaria
By Tornike Mandaria May 9, 2024

The relationship between Georgia and the European Union has hit a new low, as MEPs called for the EU to suspend the country’s candidate status and, in response, Tbilisi doubled down on its anti-Western rhetoric.

The State Security Service of Georgia (SSS) accused the organisers of the ongoing massive protests in Tbilisi against the "foreign agents" bill, as well as non-governmental organisations and the opposition, of wanting to overthrow the government with foreign funding.

Thousands of people have been staging almost daily protests for around a month against the bill, which they say is authoritarian and inspired by similar legislation in Russia that has been used to clamp down on civil society, independent media, and dissent there.

The government's draft law on transparency of foreign influence would mandate organisations with over 20% foreign funding to register as "carrying the interests of a foreign power". If they refuse to register, the organisations are liable for fines; but if they register, they then are subject to invasive government oversight.

The bill has been strongly criticised by the EU and US, amid fears that the Georgian government is becoming more authoritarian and moving closer to Russia.

The ruling Georgian Dream party has been openly accusing the West and the "global war party" of wanting to seize power in Georgia.

According to the May 8 statement of the SSS, the ultimate goal is to "dismantle state structures and overthrow the government by violent means".

"The goal is so-called Maidanisation and provoking events similar to the civil strife of the 90s in the country," the security service declared.

According to the security service, Georgian soldiers fighting against Russia in Ukraine are also involved in the process, who, together with their associates in Georgia, are "discussing plans to block and paralyse the parliament, government administration, and other government buildings".

Opponents of the bill often publicly and openly discuss ways to oppose it, albeit through peaceful means, including blocking roads. This has been happening for weeks when the central avenue of the capital, Rustaveli Avenue, is closed due to demonstrations. A few days ago, protesters also blocked one of Tbilisi's main transport hubs, Heroes' Square, for hours.

In addition, according to the SSS, the organisers instruct the youth to bring easily flammable substances to the parliament, which will be used later to make Molotov cocktails, as well as stones and iron batons.

"We call on the young people participating in the protests not to follow the provocations," the security service said.

This is not the first time that the Georgian government has talked about a coup conspiracy. In September of last year, the Security Service reported that within the framework of the USAID programme, Serbian citizens were training Georgians to prepare for a "revolutionary scenario". An investigation into the ‘violent overthrow of the government’ was launched last year.

The government's rhetoric became even more escalated after on May 7, European Parliament lawmakers called for the suspension of Georgia's EU candidate status.

A letter from MEPs states that the "continued undemocratic behaviour of the Georgian authorities, in particular their aggressiveness in pushing through a 'Russian-style' law on foreign agents, silencing and using force against peaceful demonstrators, has crossed the line".

They also asked EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Joseph Borrell to review EU funding for Georgia.

A debate was held at the level of ambassadors in Brussels regarding the current situation in Georgia, reported RFE/RL.

"Debate yesterday in Brussels on the situation in Georgia at the ambassadorial level. 26 member states voiced concern. Hungary silent. There could be an EU statement coming soon and possibly an update from the Commission on how the foreign agents law relates to EU-accession criteria", RL’s Rikard Jozwiak wrote on X.

Tbilisi has developed a strong relationship with Budapest and its leader, Viktor Orban, based on shared values regarding Christianity, and family values and populist nationalistic rhetoric advocating non-interference in domestic affairs.

On May 8, the government announced another repressive mechanism. Georgian Dream said it will create a public registry where they will enter the data of people who, according to them, are "involved in violence, other illegal actions, threats, and blackmail, or publicly approve of such actions". Chairman of the Parliament Shalva Papuashvili, announced this at a specially held briefing.

At the same time, activists, journalists, and other protest participants are receiving calls from unknown individuals with foreign numbers, who verbally abuse them. The recipients firmly believe that these calls are orchestrated by the government to intimidate opponents of the bill.

Papuashvili emphasised that the database will include those people who express their position through social media or like someone else's position.

"There is a criminal dimension, which is a crime - whether it's violence or threats, and there is a dimension where people are pressured, blackmailed, their family members are blackmailed, etc. which does not fit into the criminal dimension, and here, of course, moral evaluation is important," he said.

According to Roman Gotsiridze, a representative of the parliamentary political group Eurooptimists, "the creation of the register of people is the method of the Soviet KGB”. Gotsiridze said the Georgian Dream government has exceeded all boundaries, indicating a clear intention to perpetuate its hold on power.

According to Nika Gvaramia, a representative of the Akhali party, "What Georgian Dream does is from the year 1937, it is the registration of Jews by Nazi Germany, it is the creation of a black list, the creation of a list of enemies, which will be available to everyone".

The Parliament of Georgia has already adopted the "Foreign Agents" draft law in the second reading.

Despite Georgia witnessing its largest protests in at least the last 10 years, the government shows no signs of backing down. For the bill to become law, it requires a majority vote from the ruling party, both in a committee hearing and during a plenary session. This process is expected to happen next week.