Georgian Dream vows to overturn president's veto of "foreign agents" bill

Georgian Dream vows to overturn president's veto of
"This law is a Russian law in its essence, in its spirit," said President Salome Zurabishvili. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews May 20, 2024

The ruling Georgian Dream party has vowed to overturn President Salome Zurabishvili's veto of the controversial "foreign agents" bill, a move which will likely spark an immediate reaction from the country's Western partners and potentially even bigger protests on the streets. 

As she had threatened, Zurabishvili vetoed the bill on May 18. ​The bill now returns to parliament for consideration. The support of 76 deputies is enough to override the veto, and the parliamentary majority has more than 83 votes.

"Certainly, the parliament will override this veto," Parliamentary Speaker Shalva Papuashvili said on May 20, predicting that it would happen next week.

Despite mass protests and warnings from the EU and the US, the ruling party has stubbornly pushed for the passage of the bill, which it argues will promote transparency.

The bill would require media outlets and NGOs to register as "pursuing the interests of a foreign power" if they receive more than 20 per cent of their funding from abroad. This would mainly affect Western-funded civil society groups, independent media outlets, which would be forced to label themselves as under foreign influence and register for increased supervision or face fines.
The bill is seen as part of the increasingly rightwing and populist Georgian Dream's attempt to suppress opposition before this autumn's general election, and also as a sign of the government's shift away from the West and towards Russia, which has become more influential in the country's economy since the Russian invasion of Ukraine two years ago and the imposition of Western sanctions on Moscow.
"This law is a Russian law in its essence, in its spirit," the president, who was once supported by Georgian Dream, said at a briefing. "It is not subject to improvement by making changes, because its essence, content, and principles are unacceptable. Repeal of the law has no alternative and represents the will of the Georgian people," the president wrote.

The Law on Transparency of Foreign Influence has been condemned by the US, the EU, and human rights organizations.

Washington said it might reassess its relations with Georgia  if the legislation is not made to align with European Union standards.

Officials responsible for pushing forward Georgia’s Russian-style “foreign agents” law could face asset freezes and travel bans under a new bill to be presented to the U.S. Congress, Politico  reported. 

South Carolina Republican Representative Joe Wilson is set to introduce the bill on May 20 as part of an effort at “protecting and securing democracy”. The draft law would mandate sanctions against government officials and others who “have material responsibility for undermining or injuring democracy, human rights, or security in Georgia”.

The EU is also reportedly looking at potential sanctions, including freezing accession talks, suspending the payment of new funds, or suspending visa liberalisaton. 

The bill has prompted weeks of protests, with tens of thousands of Georgians taking to the streets to demand that the proposed law be permanently shelved, only to be met with violent crackdowns by police.

After publication of the law, the Ministry of Justice and the National Public Registry Agency will have 60 days to create a register of "organizations carrying out the interests of a foreign power". Once this stage is complete, registration in the "foreign agents" register will become mandatory for many non-governmental organizations and online media outlets.

A "foreign power" is defined by four criteria: a constituent entity of the government of a foreign state; a person who is not a citizen of Georgia; an organization not established under Georgian law; or an organizational formation or union based on the law of a foreign state and/or international law.

An organization whose source of more than 20% of its annual income is a "foreign power" is deemed a "carrier of the interests of a foreign power".

Such an organization is obliged to submit a written statement to the Ministry of Justice and request to be registered as an "organization carrying out the interests of a foreign power".

At the same time, registration involves a financial declaration of the organization, including identification data, address, website address, and information about monetary and property income received in the previous year. The source, amount, and purpose of material wealth must be explained, along with information about the amount and purpose of money spent in the previous year.

If an organization financed from abroad fails to register as an agent, the state will fine it GEL25,000 (€8,414) and register it in the "Register of Agents".

The state will recheck the organization the following month. If it finds continued non-compliance, it will impose another fine of GEL20,000. This fine can be repeated monthly for continued non-compliance.

The law includes a hearing mechanism. Anyone can notify the state in writing of the existence of a "foreign agent organization". In such cases, the Ministry of Justice has the right to start an investigation at any time. It can also initiate investigations independently, to gather information about the organization and its employees, including personal data.

The state can access various details about a "carrier of the interests of a foreign power", including a person's religious affiliation, health, sex life, conviction history, or other personal and confidential information.