Georgian parliament set to overturn president's veto of 'foreign agents bill'

Georgian parliament set to overturn president's veto of 'foreign agents bill'
Georgians are overwhelmingly in favour of EU membership. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews May 27, 2024

At 6pm last Thursday, Georgian pro-democracy activist Nata Peradze received a call summoning her to the country’s Special Investigative Service. By 6 o'clock the next morning, Peradze was already on a plane, fleeing to Europe. "I had to avoid great danger," she told RFE/RL.

As part of a campaign of mass intimidation, dozens of people have been summoned to the police. Since April 15, more than 200 people participating in protests against the government’s new "foreign agents law" have been arrested – 193 on administrative charges, such as disobedience to the police. Nine are accused of committing a criminal offense, such as "capturing or blocking an object of strategic or special importance," and "organising, leading group violence".

"There was a big chance that I’d be kept there," says Peradze, and adds, "that's why I preferred to leave immediately".

However, Peradze almost did not go to the rallies, she says, because of a health condition. In fact her activities mainly involved mobilising people on social media. However, pro-government propaganda TV companies have accused her of leading "aggressive youth". "Under the conditions of this government, I will not be able to return," says Peradze.

For almost two months, Georgia has been engulfed by the largest protests in its modern history over the foreign agents bill, which puts NGOs and independent media that receive foreign funding under a special supervisory regime. Georgian civil society and opposition parties fear that the bill is designed to paralyse any criticism or mobilisation against the government before this autumn’s general election. Authorities have attempted to suppress the protests through police brutality, massive intimidation campaigns, and thuggish violence, including against political leaders.

Zura Japaridze, the leader of "Girchi - more freedom", was questioned on May 20.

"Either they scare me, or it's leading to my arrest," Japaridze says, adding: "I have a feeling that there will be more and more violence and also they will increasingly try to harass people in a 'legal' way".

So far, the threats and violence have only brought more people into the streets. Even after the law was passed, student-led, spontaneous, simultaneous, and creative rallies continued shaking Georgian cities and paralysing traffic. They capture the attention – and often the sympathy – of those otherwise indifferent to the political situation.

The protests are now expected to be reignited when the parliament overturns the veto of the bill by President Salome Zurabishvili, which is likely to happen on May 28.

Sanctions announced

The overturning of the veto is also set to spark Western sanctions against the Georgian government.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has already announced visa restrictions will be imposed against those “responsible for undermining democracy in Georgia”, in response to the foreign agent law.

Blinken also declared a "comprehensive review of bilateral cooperation" with Georgia. He expressed hope that Georgia's leaders would reconsider the draft law and advance their nation’s democratic and Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

The statement on May 23 did not name specific individuals but stated it would include "those responsible for suppressing civil society and freedom of peaceful assembly in Georgia through a campaign of violence or intimidation".

The list of affected people might expand to include those violating democratic norms "in the lead-up to, during, and following Georgia’s October 2024 elections".

Prior to this, Politico reported that a bipartisan bill, the Georgian People's Act, would be introduced by Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Jim Risch. This follows another legislative initiative, the MEGOBARI Act, authored by US House Representative Joe Wilson.

Mitch McConnell, the outgoing US Senate Republican leader, also urged the Georgian government to reconsider their decision on the law. "In an attempt to consolidate its hold on government, the Georgian Dream Party would stamp out the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of the Georgian people," McConnell stated on the Senate floor on May 22.

The European Union is also considering sanctions against the government, which could even include suspending the opening of negotiations on Georgia’s accession to the bloc.

The sanctions do not seem to frighten the ruling party yet, if we do not count one deputy finance minister who resigned after Blinken's announcement.

"It is unbelievable that our strategic partner – the United States of America – imposes sanctions because the parliament, legitimately elected by the population of our country, adopts a law on transparency. Such actions are unimaginable, however, despite all this, we will certainly overcome the veto," said Kakha Kaladze, mayor of Tbilisi and one of the leaders of the ruling party.

The ruling party continues to roll out conspiracy theories. Everyone was surprised by the May 23 Facebook post of Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze, in which he accused European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhei of making phone threats, including that he could share with the same fate as Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot earlier this month.

Georgian Dream dismissed the advice on  the dangers of the escalation of polarisation by Varhei – its only sympthiser in the Commission – labelling it as "blackmail". Varhei had illustrated his point with Fico’s example, which Kobakhidze interpreted as a threat and connected it to the mysterious machinations of the "Global War Party". The 'Global War Party' is a conspiracy theory of the ruling party of Georgia, suggesting that a clandestine force akin to the Freemasons wields significant influence in the West and is trying to entangle Georgia in Ukraine’s war with Russia.

"My very sincere regret is that a certain part of my phone conversation was taken out of context," Varhei saod in a statement published on the official website of the European Commission on May 23. "Being fully aware of the very strong pro-EU sentiment of Georgian society, during my phone conversation I felt the need to draw attention to the importance of not further inflaming the already fragile situation by adopting this law, which could lead to further polarisation and possible uncontrolled situations on the streets of Tbilisi. In this regard, the latest tragic event in Slovakia was cited as an example and reference to where such a high level of polarisation can lead in a society, even in Europe."

"I am still urging the Georgian authorities not to adopt this law," the statement concludes.

Opposition parliamentarians are scathing of the government’s stance.

"Perhaps these individuals, [Georgian Dream honorary chairman Bidzina] Ivanishvili, Kobakhidze, require a different form of assistance... These individuals pose a danger – they are erratic figures in the governance of the country," comments opposition MP Khatia Dekanoidze.

She believes that Ivanishvili, the billionaire founder of Georgian Dream, "only prioritises his own financial security and survival," and "he will eliminate anyone who poses a threat, much like he has done with many of his own associates".

Opposition talks unity

The fractured opposition is now looking beyond the law to the next election, due in October, and discussing potential co-operation.

President Zurabishvili has unveiled a roadmap aimed at steering the nation back towards the path of European integration.

"At these elections, we should decide not who we are voting for, but what we are voting for. That's why this election will actually be a public referendum, where we have to answer the question – do we want Europe?" she said, speaking at the event dedicated to the celebration of Georgia's Independence Day.

The president invited political parties to unite around her charter, "agreeing to and pledging to fulfill all those matters necessary not only for European integration but also for the democracy of our country and the establishment of a just state".

"The steps that the signatories of this charter would commit themselves to fulfill also reflect the nine priorities put forward by the European Commission," she elaborated.

The signatory parties would commit to fulfilling their objectives during the spring session and to scheduling early elections for the autumn of 2025, creating the environment for free and fair elections. A technical, non-partisan government will be proposed by the president.

"This will be a parliament elected for a specific term and to fulfill a specific European plan. They must fulfill their obligations under the charter, after which it will return the mandate to the voters and hold new, early elections in a new, free environment. This short-term mandate ensures many risks, including the fear of the electorate, lest any force be tempted to stay in power indefinitely, as we have seen."

The president of Georgia also named the specific reforms that the "Georgian Charter" envisages:

- Withdrawing and abolishing laws damaging to the European path, among them "the law on transparency of foreign influence";

- Amnesty for all those penalised or detained for the 2024 protests;

- Profound reform of the justice system;

- Establishment of an independent anti-corruption agency with investigative rights;

- Remodelling of the electoral system.

Zurabishvili appealed to the political parties to make a decision by July 1  whether they will join the "Georgian Charter" or not.

Some of the opposition political parties have already confirmed that they will join the plan.

"I think that this is what every citizen of Georgia needs. That's why I am signing the charter offered by Salome Zurabishvili with both hands today, right now,” said Elene Khoshtaria, the leader of the Droa party.

Giga Bokeria, one of the leaders of the European Georgia party, said, "we and all responsible political forces should join this message".