EU warns Georgia that 'foreign agents' bill could block accession hopes

EU warns Georgia that 'foreign agents' bill could block accession hopes
The ruling Georgian Dream party is trying to pass a foreign agents law that would force NGOs and independent media that receive more than 20% of their funding from foreign donors to register as organisations "bearing the interests of a foreign power". / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews April 25, 2024

The European parliament published a strongly worded resolution on April 25 that calls for Georgia’s accession process to be put on ice if the Georgian parliament passes the so-called “foreign agent law”.

The resolution, which had 425 votes for and only 25 against,  strongly condemns the attempt by the ruling Georgian Dream party to pass at the second attempt a law that is regarded as modelled on Russian legislation to crack down on opposition media and NGOs.

The first version of the law was eventually withdrawn last year in the face of widespread demonstrations and international criticism. The government then made a commitment in March 2023  that it would not reintroduce it – a promise it has now reneged on.

Under the bill, NGOs and independent media that receive more than 20% of their funding from foreign donors would have to to register as organisations "bearing the interests of a foreign power".

The European Commission has also criticised the bill. "This is a very concerning development and the final adoption of this legislation would negatively impact Georgia’s progress on its EU path," the EU's diplomatic service said in a statement on April 25, Reuters reported.

Tbilisi has been rocked by five days of continuous protests this time around as well, with large crowds demonstrating outside the parliament building waving European and Georgian flags.

Parliament has already passed the law in the first of three readings, despite fights breaking out on the chamber’s flaws during the voting. The final reading  is expected to take place next month.

The European Parliament said the foreign agent’s law does not align with the values and principles of the European Union. Georgia was accepted as a candidate country to join the EU along with Ukraine and Moldova in November 2023.

According to the European Parliament’s resolution, the bill “damages Georgia’s international reputation” and “threatens the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration”.

The resolution calls on the Georgian parliament to stop the consideration of the bill and for the government to respect the citizens’ rights to peacefully protest against the bill.

While Georgia’s candidacy has been accepted, it has yet to begin the formal negotiation process that is a precursor for membership. The European Parliament resolution calls for the start of those talks to be suspended as long as the foreign agents law is on the books.

While Tbilisi remains keen on joining the EU for the economic benefits it brings, its trade  since Russia's invasion of Ukraine war has flourished as it has become a major way station for goods being imported by Russia. This has made Georgia  more economically dependent on Russia than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Calls for sanctions on Ivanishvili

Members of the European Parliament also called for sanctions against those responsible for the reintroduction of the foreign agents bill and singled out Georgia’s éminence grise, oligarch and honorary chairman of Georgian Dream, Bidzina Ivanishvili, in a decision on April 24.

Member of the European Parliament Michael Haller stated, “We express solidarity with the protest of the people of Georgia, which is taking place under Georgian and European flags. It is necessary to introduce sanctions against Bidzina Ivanishvili, because it is he who stands behind the scenes and sets the agenda.”

Ivanishvili made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s, making him Georgia’s richest man and helping him  to dominate the political scene . He returned to Georgia in 2002, later founding Georgian Dream to challenge pro-Western premier Mikheil Saakashvili at the general election in 2012. Ivanishvili then served as premier of Georgia from October 2012 to November 2013, before giving way to a succession of premiers that he chose. Georgian Dream has been in power now for 13 years.

Ivanishvili has said on occasion that he is withdrawing from politics, but last year he returned to be honorary chairman.

In response to the European Parliament calls for sanctions on Georgian lawmakers behind the bill, Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze criticised the MEPs as “arrogant and biased”.

Leader of the Georgian Dream faction in the parliament, Mamuka Mdinaradze, said he was “amazed” by the European Parliament’s reaction. “Who would have envisioned a few years ago that the individual who proposed bills concerning funding transparency and family values in parliamentary discussions would become the target of a deliberate, coordinated assault?” the local press reported him as saying.

As Georgian academic Gia Tarkhan-Mouravi wrote in an op-ed for bne IntelliNews this week, the EU faces a severe dilemma over how to respond to Georgian Dream's increasingly authoritarian behaviour.  If it freezes Georgia's  progress towards EU accession it will on the one hand undeservedly punish, and possibly alienate, a population that is eager to move faster along the EU integration path, and at the same time it will bring much joy to the EU's  adversaries,  Russia in the first place, and could push the Georgian government towards even more pro-Russian, pro Chinese, and anti-democratic policies.