In Georgia, Civil Society Wins against Russia-Style ‘Foreign Agents’ Bill

Georgia, a former Soviet republic of 3.7 million, has long been considered one of the closest strategic partners to the Euro-Atlantic bloc in the South Caucasus. In response to the country’s strengthening relations with the West, Russia launched a five-day war against Georgia in 2008, leaving 20 percent of the country’s internationally recognized territory under Russian military occupation to this day. The memory of the war reverberates among the Georgian public, which results in high support for EU and NATO memberships (81 percent and 73 percent, respectively) and negative views toward the Kremlin. However, the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party, incumbent since 2012 and founded by business tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili with businesses in Russia, has adopted a much softer stance vis-à-vis Moscow. To balance between Russia and the West, the GD did not join the economic sanctions imposed against the Kremlin following the invasion of Ukraine, yet it did apply for EU membership along with the Ukrainian and Moldovan governments in March 2022. However, the European Commission did not recommend Georgia be granted candidate status until the state authorities fulfilled the 12 criteria outlined by the commission. In particular, Georgia would need to address the political polarization between the GD and opposition parties, guarantee a free media environment, and ensure civil society involvement in decision-making processes, among others.

Instead, in early March 2023, a year after Georgia’s EU bid, the government decided to adopt a highly controversial Russia-style law, “On Transparency of Foreign Influence,” which led to massive pro-EU and anti-Russia demonstrations across the country. In fear of seeing the Euromaidan 2.0 play out in the streets of Tbilisi, the ruling party ultimately dropped the draft law, a decision widely celebrated by the Georgian public but also strongly criticized in Moscow. While civil society has demonstrated its commitment to Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, questions arise regarding the ruling party’s shifting political agenda.

Q1: What is the “On Transparency of Foreign Influence” draft law?

A1: The bill was introduced in the Parliament of Georgia by members of People’s Power, a political party widely believed to be affiliated with the GD, in mid-February 2023. It required all nongovernmental, noncommercial, and media organizations that received at least 20 percent of their funding from foreign sources to register as “agents of foreign influence” with the Ministry of Justice of Georgia, making them liable to additional onerous financial reporting requirements and random state inspections, as well as up to $10,000 in administrative fines for failures to register as foreign agents or submitting incomplete financial declarations.

Proponents of this bill argued that it was inspired by the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which aims to identify forces primarily engaged in political activities that carry out interests of a foreign country within the United States. But was there really a need for such a law in Georgia? Already in 1998, the Parliament of Georgia approved legislation similar to FARA, regulating lobbying activities in the country. Additionally, organizations financed by Western donors are already transparent due to reporting requirements imposed by their respective donors and Georgian “Law on Grants” created in 1996, which asks grant recipients to provide necessary information such as “the purpose and amount of the funding” received. Therefore, there was no need to initiate a new bill, when the relevant laws already exist in Georgia.

In addition, the U.S. Department of State actively denied statements that the draft law was based on FARA. Instead, it looked directly modeled after similar Russian legislation, which the Kremlin introduced in 2012 to silence Western-funded civil society organizations and critical media. Indeed, Kakha Gogolashvili, a senior fellow with the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, points out that the Russian and proposed Georgian legislations are very similar in that they both only target non-governmental and media organizations, identify lower bounds of foreign donations sufficient to make an individual an agent of foreign influence (at least $6,700 in the case of Russia and 20 percent of the total funding in the case of Georgia), and even introduce similar amounts in administrative fines (up to $10,000) if a foreign agent refuses to register as such.

Q2: What was the reaction to the bill in Georgia?

A2: More than 400 local nongovernmental organizations wrote an open letter to the ruling Georgian Dream party members, condemning the proposed legislation and urging the members of parliament to vote against this “Russia-style” bill. Despite criticism, the GD asserted that the bill would shed light on non-governmental organizations affiliated with the country’s “radical opposition” and thus help international donors “abstain from financing [political] polarization.” As a result, on March 7, the Parliament of Georgia passed the bill in the first hearing by 76 voters in favor and 13 against. Lawmakers supporting the proposed legislation belonged primarily to the GD and People’s Power, while members of the United National Movement (UNM), the country’s chief opposition party, voted against the bill.

Approval of the draft law in the first parliamentary hearing sent a frightening message to state critics who compose a significant majority of Georgia’s civil society, as it risked inhibiting them from freely voicing their opinions for fear of retaliations from the state authorities. Even though President Salome Zurabishvili, who represents an independent political force, said she would veto the draft law, the parliament can easily override a presidential veto.

The imminent implementation of the draft law that would inevitably silence critical voices, suppress democratic processes, and undermine Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations (which is guaranteed by Article 78 of the country’s constitution) while drawing Tbilisi even closer to Moscow spurred mass protests across the country. Demonstrations were the most notable in Georgia’s capital city. Tens of thousands of protesters flooded the streets of Tbilisi, carrying EU, Georgian, and Ukrainian flags and chanting “No to the Russian law.” The state police used water cannons, tear gas, and pepper spray to attempt to disperse citizens, but were largely unsuccessful. Politico compared images streaming out of Tbilisi to the 2013–2014 Euromaidan Revolution taking place in Kyiv. This comparison became even more obvious when Ukrainian president Zelensky wished “European success” to “friendly Georgia,” expressing hope that both nations will join the European Union.

Q3: How has the international community reacted to the bill and the protests?

A3: In addition to the United States, the bill was criticized by the EU representatives, who warned the Georgian government that the draft law directly contradicted the 12 priorities outlined by the European Commission necessary to obtain EU candidate status. Similarly, the Human Rights Watch called the bill “incompatible with international human rights law,” and the United Nations Development Program said it ultimately impedes “the work of civil society and media and the essential contributions they make to Georgian democracy.” When protests spurred, many in the West, including EU high representative Josep Borrell and French president Emmanuel Macron, commended Georgian citizens’ commitment to protecting “democracy and European values.”

Moscow reacted in the opposite way. Russian president Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, expressed concerns regarding the Tbilisi protests, stating that “it is important for us to have calmness near our borders,” (author’s translation). Many in the Kremlin also readily accused the United States for stirring up social unrest.

Q4: What happens now?

A4: Against the backdrop of mass protests lasting for several days, the ruling party announced that they would drop the bill in the second parliamentary hearing. The GD argued that the party’s failure to promptly explain the need for the proposed law to the Georgian public had been skillfully used by the “radical forces,” primarily the UNM opposition party, to “mislead a certain part of the public,” and especially the youth. On March 10, the Parliament of Georgia officially dropped the controversial bill on “Transparency of Foreign Influence.” This move has been widely celebrated across the country and interpreted as a win for the civil society in Georgia. Western partners also cautiously welcomed the ruling party’s decision to drop the draft law.

By contrast, the Kremlin is dissatisfied. Russian State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin maintained that Washington had once again deprived Georgia of its sovereignty. According to Volodin, “if the law on foreign agents was passed, Georgia would get the right to control the funds transferred from the country from abroad” that are used to finance organizations “forming an anti-Georgian agenda.” More radical voices in Moscow, including head of the Russia Today channel Margarita Simonyan claimed that this was yet another attempt from the West to “open the second front” for Russia in its neighborhood, while Russia’s so-called Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in Crimea warned the Georgian people to recall the 2014 Euromaidan “and what it finally led to.”

At least some of these sentiments are also shared by Georgia’s current prime minister Irakli Garibashvili, a member of the ruling GD party. This Monday, Garibashvili asserted that certain forces have been attempting to open a “second front” in Georgia, hinting at pro-demonstration statements made by some Ukrainian and Western officials and stating that “the only thing [Ukrainians] are dissatisfied with is that we did not join the war.”

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has spread fears of the Kremlin interference in other former Soviet republics. In September 2022, President Putin even signed a new decree justifying Moscow’s interference in domestic affairs of neighboring states, including Georgia, to allegedly protect the “Russian World.” Russian troops also remain present in the occupied territories of Georgia, within several kilometers from Tbilisi, serving as a constant reminder for the government to keep its Euro-Atlantic aspirations in check. This might be one reason, among potentially many, for the GD to keep currying favors with the Kremlin by proposing legislation that would limit activities of pro-Western organizations inside the country. Therefore, even if the controversial draft law was dropped, there is a possibility that the GD (or its satellite parties) might introduce a reshaped bill in the near future. Yet what the recent protests have shown is that Georgia’s civil society is vibrant, undaunted, and unapologetically pro-European, giving hope that Russia will not win in Ukraine nor in a wider region, but also creating more friction between the ruling party and the society going forward.

Maria Snegovaya is a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., and a postdoctoral fellow in Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service. Tina Dolbaia is a research associate with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at CSIS.

Tina Dolbaia
Research Associate, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program