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European future of Georgia is under threat with a new “foreign agents” law.

On 3 April the ruling party Georgian Dream announced its intentions to introduce the so-called “foreign agents” law. After nearly one month, the bill was approved by Georgian Parliament in the third reading despite the huge protests and a strong criticism from opposition which calls the bill a “Russian law” due to the existence of similar legislation in Russia. According to the new law, any organization which receives more than 20% of its money from abroad must be registered as a one “pursuing the interests of the foreign power”. This is a second attempt to pass this law. In March 2023 the government has already tried to introduce a similar bill with almost identical text. The only difference between the “new” and “old” ones is that in the previous bill another term “an agent of foreign influence” was used instead. After mass protests and a harsh critique from the West, Georgian Dream withdrew its plans to pass this law. However, all of that took place also this year. So why did the government, which still claims to be pro-European, decide to come back to the controversial bill a year after the big fail? Why neither the protests nor the pressure from the Western countries didn’t stop them this time?


Sabotage of the European future

EU officials strongly criticize “foreign agents’’ bill claiming that such legislation is incompatible with the EU fundamental values and norms which Georgia as a EU candidate country should follow. On 25 April European Parliament, with a large majority in favour, voted for a resolution condemning “foreign agents” law. The resolution also emphasizes that “EU accession negotiations should not be opened as long as this law is part of Georgia’s legal order”. Georgian president Salome Zourabichvili called government actions “sabotage of the European future”. Zourabichvili vetoed the law after it was adopted in the third reading. However, on 28 May the veto was overridden by a simple majority in Georgian Parliament as it is required by law.

The government rejects criticism, emphasizing that the same law already exists in the US and that a Georgian one won’t be much different. However, in fact there are fundamental differences between them. American Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) defines a “foreign agent” as any person who is under direct control of the foreign power or acts in the interests of the foreign power. The law exempts from this definition humanitarian, religious and academic organizations. In contrast, according to the Georgian “foreign agents” bill receiving funds from abroad is enough to be recognized as a “foreign agent”. Also the historical context should be taken into consideration here. American FARA was adopted in 1938 to target lobbyists acting in the interests of Nazi Germany. The Georgian one is targeted on various NGOs and independent media but also, considering the move to the authoritarian direction during the last years, possibly on Georgian opposition which could be labeled as “foreign agents’’ with this law.



What is their real dream?

Georgian Dream was founded in 2012 initially as a coalition of several political parties by an oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili. The new-founded party won the 2012 elections and since this time remains in power, winning all the following elections. However, the last parliamentary elections, held in 2020, were pretty controversial due to the accusations of falsifying the results from opposition parties and the protests which have followed after that. Georgian Dream tries to position itself as a centre-left European type social democratic party. The party declares its commitment to the European and Euro-Atlantic integration of Georgia, claiming that Georgia has to become a member of EU and NATO one day. However, the critics say that party only pretends to be pro-Western and in fact government formed by Georgian Dream acts in the interests of Russia and does everything to stop or at least to slow down the process of European integration. The 2017-2018 constitutional amendments which have removed the direct presidential elections can be considered as one of the first steps towards the authoritarian direction.

The abolition of direct presidential election and introduction of the electoral college system instead, could give the party a possibility of electing a loyal and obedient president who won’t go against the government policy like the current president Salome Zourabichvili does. Zourabichvil, a strong supporter of European integration of Georgia and a proponent of the tougher stance towards Russia, many times has criticized the government policy and for this reason she has a strong conflict with them, which has led to the failed attempt of her impeachment in 2023.


Religion and European integration

Despite presenting itself as a centre-left party, Georgian Dream frequently uses conservative rhetoric. Several days before the party announced the highly controversial highly “foreign agents” bill, Georgian Dream introduced an anti-LGBT bill which would prohibit the gender change and adoption of the children by same-sex couples. The proposal also aims to ban the events and education activities which, according to its authors, popularize same-sex relationships. The introduction of both these laws together could be a strategic decision made by the Georgian Dream leadership for several reasons. First of all, the government wanted to avoid the huge protests which took place last year. Georgian society remains predominantly conservative and religious, where the opposition of the LGBT rights is very widespread. For this reason, an anti-LGBT bill most likely will be supported by many Georgians or at least won’t be strongly opposed. This way the government wants to ease the anger caused by the introduction of the “foreign agents” bill. Georgian Dreams aims to consolidate the conservative electorate to win the next parliamentary elections which are scheduled at the end of October 2024. For this purpose, the party wants to obtain the support of the Georgian Orthodox Church which is very influential in the country. The most recent census showed that 83% of the country’s population identify themselves as Orthodox Christians.

Although the conservative views are still pretty common among Georgians, opinion polls demonstrate a huge support for European integration. According to the poll conducted by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and CRRC Georgia, 79% of Georgians are in favour of EU membership. Considering these figures, it is not hard to guess that any party, openly speaking against European integration, this way would commit a “political suicide”. Realizing that, the current government still claims to be pro-European despite its actions are in a strong contradiction with these claims. So, the main question is whether Georgian society is ready to give up conservative and religious values in order to fight for the European future of the country.

 

Artem Shevchenko


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