Irakli Garibashvili, Bidzina Ivanishvili and Irakli Kobakhidze

Irakli Garibashvili, Bidzina Ivanishvili and Irakli Kobakhidze

ASTNA spoke with Georgian political commentator Nicholas Chkhaidze, a researcher at the Topchubashov Center, about the protests against the law on foreign agents in Georgia and what is happening.

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Question:  Nikolas, the draft law “On Transparency of Foreign Influence,” which is popularly referred to as the “Foreign Agents” or “Russian Law,” has once again sparked protests in Georgia. What do you think irritates the public about the bill?

Answer: What irritates the public about this particular bill is the essence of the law itself, and the way in which it undermines Georgia’s European prospects by targeting the West, civil society organizations, and non-governmental organizations. The bill, aimed at restricting civil society and the non-governmental sector, in reality, has a more wicked intent, that could fundamentally alter the foreign policy trajectory of Georgia, alienating it from the West. 

The law mirrors the Russian one by severely restricting funding to civil society groups from Europe and the United States, designating them as "foreign agents." Furthermore, the legislation lists countries in the West that have traditionally helped and backed Georgia as foes. At the same time, Russia, which keeps occupying 20% of Georgian territories, is not even mentioned in the bill.

The pattern does resemble the sequence started in Russia back in 2012 with the adoption of FAL, which eventually ended with closures and prison sentences for “Foreign Agents” years later, most recently with the State Duma banning Russian citizens designated as foreign agents from participating in the elections.

Question: The ruling party insisted on the adoption of this bill. I wonder why the ruling party was so persistent despite the public resistance? What will this law give to the Georgian authorities?

Answer: The law was adopted today, on the 14th of May. The Georgian Dream government’s determination to adopt this law is reflected in its actions and statements over the years. It gives them a legal instrument to drive out the West and change Georgia’s foreign policy direction for years to come, which will eventually result in Georgia’s transformation to a consolidated authoritarian regime, which the NGOs and CSOs were trying to prevent by keeping the government in check. 

Along with the Georgian government’s rhetoric of demonizing the opposition and the NGOs/CSOs, their ungrounded criticism of Georgia’s Western partners, as well as the praise coming from the Kremlin and Russia’s propaganda circles, reflects a fundamental change in the Georgian government’s foreign policy priorities.

As peculiar as it may seem, even though almost eighty percent of Georgians favor integration with NATO and the EU, according to a recent survey, the Georgian leadership has taken a different route, appropriating language and legal instruments from Russia, which is why hundreds of thousands of Georgians have taken to the streets to protest against the adoption of this law.

The fact that the Georgian Dream government has always been a populist force and never goes against the will of the Georgian people signifies the fears of the Georgian Dream and the informal ruler of Georgia, Bidzina Ivanishvili, that they might lose the elections. To prevent that from happening, they need to restrict the work of CSOs and NGOs that are often times funded by Georgia’s Western partners.

Question: I wonder why this law is called “Russian law”? Because the other side puts forward the justification that a similar bill was adopted in the USA in 1938 and in many European countries on other dates. But now the US and the West are condemning Georgia for this step. What is the reason?

Answer: The reason why it’s called a Russian law has a lot to do with its nature and structure, and the fact that GD has been calling it similar to an American version of this law is an utter lie. The historical setting and target audience of US Foreign Agents Law (FARA) and the recently reintroduced Foreign Agents Law in Georgia represent two of the most important distinctions between the two laws. 

In 1938, the US Congress passed FARA to go after consulting and lobbying businesses that supported the Nazi German regime. The regulation was also inspired by worries about Soviet Communist spies. 

On the other hand, the GD, which supports Georgia's foreign agents’ law, has solely cited financing from the US and the EU for non-governmental organizations in Georgia as the basis of “foreign agents” in Georgia. De facto, the EU and the US have been placed in the same classification by the GD as the US did with the Nazis. 

Even the statement yesterday by the Prime Minister of Georgia, Irakli Kobakhidze, highlighted how the Georgian government views the West. In his statement, the PM said: “Georgia won’t bow down to Soviet-style instructions from abroad” – referring to the West.

The way that FARA and Georgia's foreign agents’ statutes define a "foreign agent" is the primary and most significant legal distinction between them. According to Georgian law, a foreign agent is any non-profit legal entity that gets more than 20% of its financing from a "foreign power," which can refer to governments as well as organizations, foundations, and private citizens, exempting religious organizations

However, according to US law, a foreign agent is any individual—legal or otherwise—who is controlled by, directs, or represents a foreign power and works in that country's best interests.

Question: Could this move cut off EU candidate Georgia's path toward integration with the West?

Answer: More and more experts and EU MPs are talking about this. There is indeed a serious chance that the decision-makers in the EU could overlook re-examine their relations with Georgia. 

Leading MEPs demand the revocation of Georgia's EU candidate status, an examination of EU assistance for the Georgian state budget, and an in-depth evaluation of Georgia's implementation of the nine steps outlined by the European Commission for the start of membership talks in a letter dated May 7 to Josep Borrell. Over thirty prominent MEPs from different political factions in the European Parliament have signed the letter. Therefore, there’s a real possibility that Georgia’s Western integration path as we know will be undermined.

Question: What will change or what can happen in Georgia after the law is adopted?

Answer: The outcome of the October elections in Georgia and the adoption of this law will significantly impact Georgia’s domestic and regional dynamics in the South Caucasus, with GD seeking to secure a much-needed win that will alter the nation’s foreign policy direction, benefiting the Kremlin. 

As Georgia faces isolation and is at risk of completely falling into Russian influence, it will crack down on the remaining dissent in Georgia, targeting the NGOs, CSOs, and government critics in general, transforming Georgia into a consolidated authoritarian regime.

At the end of April, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder and the real power behind the Georgian Dream, doubled down on the already-existing anti-Western narrative, declared major changes to Georgia’s foreign policy, and threatened the opposition with political repressions at a pro-government rally.

In his speech, which parrots the Kremlin’s message box, Georgia’s informal ruler demonized Georgian CSOs/NGOs, the EU, the US, and the West as a whole - labeling them as external enemies and accusing them of being responsible for all the difficulties and wars in Georgia and Ukraine. 

He also claimed that the West was planning a coup to topple the existing government and push Georgia towards a war with Russia, which is also why he is in favor of adopting FAL. Therefore, since this law was adopted today on May 14th in its third and final hearing, we should expect more and more repressions of its political and ideological opponents from the side of the Georgian Dream.

Question: According to experts, Russia is behind what is happening. With the adoption of this law, Western organizations and pro-Western people will be suppressed in Georgia. Instead, Georgia's ruling party will remain in power for a longer period of time under Russian guarantees. And there are even versions that the problem of Abkhazia and South Ossetia can be solved. If the law is not adopted, Georgia's sovereignty will be threatened and a situation similar to Russian-Ukrainian relations may even arise in the region. Even if there is a change of power, Georgia will not be able to get out of this situation. How close to the truth do you think these ideas are?

Answer: It is quite fair and logical to say that it is Russia that’s behind the Foreign Agents’ Law developments in Georgia. There are many circumstances that point to that, such as the fact that the only ones praising this law are the Russian government officials and propagandists. It is, after all, in their interest to drive out the West from Georgia, making it their foothold in the South Caucasus. 

By targeting political opponents and fundamentally changing the political landscape in Georgia, the Georgian Dream will remain in power for a very long period of time, and in these circumstances, the conspiracies about the occupied territories of Georgia, Abkhazia and Samachablo (also known as South Ossetia) and their issues being resolved is not excluded altogether, as this version has some basis to exist, considering that a Kremlin-associated businessman, Davit Khidasheli and an influential GD politician, Gia Volski, met in Tbilisi and discussed issues relevant to the occupied territories of Georgia. 

The narrative that if this law is not adopted, Georgia’s sovereignty will be threatened and a situation similar to Russian-Ukrainian relations may even arise in the region, is what the Georgian Dream keeps saying all the time, playing the fearmongering card, they hope that through this narrative, they will be able to justify not only the adoption of this law, but their lack of support to Ukraine, and not joining the sanctions regime against Russia. 

As GD’s message box often times parrots the Kremlin’s narrative, GD’s conspiratorial statements over the past two years that – “The West wants to open up a second front with Russia in Georgia” should serve as a confirmation of that.

Therefore, even though I think that a humiliated Russia in Ukraine could look for alternative targets to achieve its “small victory” somewhere else and not lose face, the narrative that if specifically FAL is not adopted the above-mentioned scenario could take place does not sound realistic to me.

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