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Georgia at Tipping Point - Time for the EU to start walking the talk

Amanda Paul , Iana Maisuradze

Date: 17/05/2024

With Georgia’s survival as a free and independent state at risk, the EU should stop talking and start acting like the geopolitical actor it craves to be.

 Despite weeks of large-scale protests, Georgian lawmakers voted 84 to 30 on the controversial “law on transparency of foreign influence”, commonly known and referred to as the “foreign agents law”, in its third and final reading on 14 May. The bill is fashioned from Russia’s 2012 foreign agents law, which is used to crack down on dissent. "Never back to the USSR!" has been the response from the vast majority of the Georgian people.

 If the Government enacts the law, it will have severe consequences, including sanctions on all those who voted for it. The EU needs to make it crystal clear with the united response, which has so far proved difficult with Hungary opposing it. The EU should compel the Georgian Government to withdraw the bill and urge to continue doubling down efforts to fulfil 9 steps set out by the European Commission to open accession negotiations later this year.  


Foreign Agents Law 2.0

 While the “foreign agents law” first surfaced in 2023, large-scale demonstrations and the threat of Georgia not receiving EU candidate country status led to it being ditched. However, the bill resurfaced as an almost identical law on the “law on transparency of foreign influence”.

 If enacted, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs)  and media outlets, that receive more than 20% of their total annual funding from abroad, will be labelled as “organisations pursuing the interests of a foreign influence”. Many Georgian CSOs and independent media receive crucial foreign financing, including from the EU and the US. They would be subjected to intense scrutiny, including complex reporting requirements, and  large administrative fines would be introduced in the case of non-compliance. When the equivalent law was implemented in Russia, it was used to marginalise voices challenging the Kremlin and led to the shuttering of numerous independent civil society and media organisations. Thus, critics will be silenced, and Georgia risks becoming an illiberal democracy, potentially transitioning to an authoritarian regime.

 The bill’s adoption contradicts Georgia's European and Euro-Atlantic integration aspirations. It violates several conditions linked to Tbilisi’s  EU membership goal which would prevent Georgia from passing through the next stage, opening accession negotiations, on its way to the EU membership after being granted candidate status. The country was granted candidate country status on the understanding that it would fulfil several key steps, including fighting disinformation and ensuring CSOs operate freely. The "foreign agents law" directly undermines these conditions. Furthermore, it does not comply with Georgia’s obligations under Articles 11 and 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

 Unfortunately, the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) Government's commitment to fundamental rights and freedoms is rapidly eroding. While it did enough to obtain EU candidate country status in December 2023, little reform has happened since. Instead, democratic backsliding has become the trend, including proposed legislation to restrict LGBTIQ+ rights. The Georgian people have been unequivocal in their response. They fear the law will be used to crush critical voices and control the media and civil society ahead of the October parliamentary elections.


"I'm Georgian and therefore I'm European,"

 Nearly 90% of Georgians support EU integration, and as in 2023, Georgians took to the streets with a clear message -  "No to Russian law; Yes to Europe”. While the 2023 protests led to the GD abandoning the bill, the Government's response has been much harsher this time. Water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas have been used on demonstrators. Some have been arrested and beaten.

 GD claims the bill will "boost transparency" of foreign funding. One of their justifications relates to the independence of the existing CSOs, as former government officials, particularly those from the main opposition United National Movement (UNM), who moved to the civil society/think tank sector. While they claim to be neutral they do have political interests, including in the upcoming elections. Nevertheless, this is not unique to Georgia as many government officials, including those in the US and the EU, move back and forth between the Government and civil society – though not partisan.

 Furthermore, while the "foreign agents law" is in the spotlight, other worrying new laws, including a new “offshore” bill, already vetoed by President Zourabichvili, are being proposed. If adopted, it would make Georgia a tax haven, with more significant risks of money laundering, increased corruption and uncontrolled inflow of finances. While Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili can veto these laws, the dominant position of GD and its partners in parliament is strong enough to override her veto. Georgia’s Western trajectory is at risk and against the people's will.


The EU bubble has burst

 While on Europe Day, Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze pledged that European integration would remain a priority. He also confirmed that the Government would push ahead with the bill despite opposition from "misled youngsters who feel resentment towards Russia”. The party's honorary chairman and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is now widely seen as cultivating relations with Moscow, despite the Kremlin occupying 20% of Georgian territory and persistent efforts to destabilise the country. Labelling NGOs a "pseudo-elite nurtured by a foreign country", he has also blamed the “Global War Party” – not Russia – for Moscow's 2008 invasion of Georgia and its 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

 Facing this crossroads, Georgians urgently need the EU  to step up and help them push back against further efforts to repress their fundamental rights and freedoms and change the country's strategic direction.


 Statements are not enough

 The EU has made several statements responding to the "foreign agents law”. European Commission President and the European Council President reiterated that Georgia's path to the EU is built on a democratic and free society based on the rule of law. HRVP Borrell and the European Commission stated that the adoption of this law negatively impacts Georgia's progress on the EU path. The European Parliament also called for the law to be withdrawn and recommended that all those who voted for it should be sanctioned if it is not.


If the law goes forward without conforming to EU norms and this kind of rhetoric and aspersions against the US and other partners continue, I think the relationship is at risk,” stated James O’Brien, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, in Tbilisi. The US Department of State urges the bill's withdrawal or risking "…fundamental changes in US policy towards Georgia, including reconsideration of US financial assistance, the expansion of visa bans to the United States, and financial sanctions on those responsible for undermining Georgia's democratic development."


While there is still a chance that the GD will withdraw the bill, this seems a remote possibility. Thus, The EU and its member states must take concrete steps to support the Georgian people in a proactive, united, results-orientated manner, with an effective strategy that goes beyond words. As of yet, there is little sign of this.

 First, the EU should back President Zourabichvili’s proposal to postpone the law's entry into force until after the elections. This way it will become part of the GD election campaign. They should also suggest taking into account the Venice Commission’s feedback.

 The European Commission should follow the European Parliament's recommendation and impose individual targeted sanctions. It should also immediately suspend all pre-accession finance to the central Government of Georgia while the law is in force and, at the same time, reassure all grantees that they will continue to receive core EU funding until the end of the current cycle.

 If the law’s entry into force is not postponed, then the European Commission must take swift action, making it abundantly clear what lies in store if the Government does not ditch the bill. This message should be delivered at the highest level, and all EU leaders must stick to the narrative. This requires a strong, clear, and united communication strategy. It is essential to communicate directly with Georgians in their country – not just in Tbilisi but in other parts of Georgia, too.

 There are also some things that the EU should refrain from doing. Suspending EU visa liberalisation to Georgian citizens would be a major error, as it would only punish the Georgian people and further isolate them. The same goes for withdrawing Georgia’s candidate status, as this would also punish the people. Furthermore, it would be a controversial step and not justified, given that some other candidate countries have also moved in the wrong direction and not faced such a harsh EU response. The EU must be careful not to take steps that play into Russia's hands.


Shoulder to Shoulder

 If the EU is serious about being a relevant and effective geopolitical actor, now is the time to prove it. With Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, the war in Gaza and the rules-based international order in turmoil, the EU must be steadfast in response or risk further upheaval in its neighbourhood damaging to its interests and security as well as enlargement policy. Failure to act strongly would be a major betrayal of the brave Georgian people fighting for their European future. Georgians fought for centuries to maintain their identity and freedom. They will never compromise or give in. Neither should the EU compromise nor give in Georgia as a family member.

Iana Maisuradze is a Junior Policy Analyst of the Europe in the World programme.

Amanda Paul is a Deputy Head and Senior Policy Analyst of the Europe in the World programme.

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