Georgia’s ‘foreign agents’ bill: What’s the controversy about? What’s next?

The ‘Russia law’ will make it hard for Georgia to join European Union, argue protesters, the US and Baltic states.

Georgia’s Parliament passed its new “transparency of foreign influence” bill – also known as the “foreign agents” law – on Tuesday despite mass protests that have rocked the capital, Tbilisi, for the past few weeks. After the bill was passed, thousands of protesters clashed with the police outside the parliament building in the centre of Tbilisi.

The new law was initially proposed by the Georgian Dream party, which has been in power since 2012, last year but was withdrawn following protests against it. The bill was reintroduced in March this year after a new prime minister, Irakli Kobakhidze, took office, leading to protests throughout April that were met with violent crackdowns and arrests by masked riot police.

Footage broadcast on national television on Monday showed lawmakers from the governing and opposition parties brawling in parliament. Opposition parliament member Aleko Elisashvili punched the governing Georgian Dream party leader, Mamuka Mdinaradze, in the face.

So, what’s in the bill and why is it so controversial?

What’s in the ‘foreign agents’ bill?

The bill, which passed with 84 members of parliament out of 150 voting in favour, requires non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and media outlets with more than 20 percent of their funding coming from outside Georgia to register as bodies “pursuing the interests of a foreign power”.

If they refuse to do so and to disclose sensitive information about foreign funding, they will be met with a fine of 25,000 lari ($9,360), followed by additional fines of 20,000 lari ($7,490) for each month of non-compliance thereafter.

NGO and media organisations fear being forced to close if they do not comply. Eka Gigauri, head of the Georgian branch of Transparency International, the anti-corruption NGO which has operated in the country for 24 years, told France24: “The implication would be that they might freeze our assets.”

How has the government justified the bill?

Georgia’s government says the bill is needed to promote transparency, combat “pseudo-liberal values” promoted by foreigners and preserve the country’s sovereignty.

Georgian Dream’s backer, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, has accused NGOs of being foreign puppets and plotting a revolution.

Prime Minister Kobakhidze, a strong proponent of the bill, said if authorities did not pass the bill, Georgia would lose its sovereignty and “easily share the fate of Ukraine”. The exact meaning of his statement was not immediately clear. He has previously said the bill promotes accountability.

The Georgian government has also argued that the new law is similar to transparency legislations in Western countries – such as the Foreign Agents Registration Act in the United States and similar directives planned in France and other European Union countries.

What are the objections to the bill?

The bill is deeply unpopular – with some 50,000 protesters gathered in Tbilisi on Sunday.

Critics argue that this law will limit democracy and media freedom and will also jeopardise the country’s bid to join the EU. Georgia applied to be part of the EU in 2022 and was granted candidate status in December last year.

The bill has been dubbed the “Russian law” by opponents due to its similarities to Russian legislation used to crack down on critics of President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.

Georgia’s President Salome Zourabichvili dubbed the bill an “exact duplicate” of the one in Russia in an interview with CNN. While Zourabichvili has promised to veto the bill, her move can be overruled through a simple majority in parliament, which the ruling Georgian Dream party enjoys.

Some critics also argue that the bill will move Georgia closer to Russia. The two former Soviet countries have had a strained relationship since Georgia’s independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, particularly over Georgia’s Russia-friendly, separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions – a dispute which led to violent conflict in 2008. Most countries recognise these regions as part of Georgia, but Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Syria all regard them as independent.

The Georgian Dream’s billionaire backer, Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia, has not publicly condemned the invasion of Ukraine and has been accused of leaning towards Moscow.

What’s next?

NGO workers, activists and journalists say they fear harassment and persecution in Georgia as a result of this new law. Baia Pataraia, who heads the women’s rights NGO, Sapari, said she has experienced harassment, threats and accusations of being a foreign agent since the reintroduction of the bill. Pataraia refuses to register as a foreign agent.

Organisations also fear losing funding as many are largely dependent on funding from overseas. Nato Shavkaladze, who runs a shelter for women escaping domestic abuse in Georgia, told the AFP news agency: “If we don’t register, we will probably cease to exist.”

What’s the reaction to the bill?

The bill has not only prompted discontent among Georgia’s public. The US and the EU have also voiced their concerns and strongly disagree with the government’s argument that the new law is similar to transparency legislation passed in Western countries.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU Commission, warned on May 1 that Georgia was “at a crossroads”. The EU has warned that this move could hinder the Black Sea country’s admission into the bloc. “EU member countries are very clear that if this law is adopted it will be a serious obstacle for Georgia in its European perspective,” said EU spokesman Peter Stano.

Until right before the passage of the bill, the US was urging Georgia not to go ahead with the move, saying it would be inconsistent with its stated goal to join the EU and have a relationship with NATO.

“We’re deeply troubled by Georgia’s Kremlin-style foreign agents legislation,” US Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Tuesday. “If this legislation passes, it will compel us to fundamentally reassess our relationship with Georgia.”

The US ambassador to Georgia, Robin Dunnigan, said in a statement on May 2 that the US government had invited Prime Minister Kobakhidze to high-level talks “with the most senior leaders”. But Georgia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the invitation was declined. Instead, Kobakhidze accused the US of supporting “revolutionary attempts” by NGOs working in the country, such as EU-funded organisations Transparency International Georgia and ISFED, which often highlight government corruption and abuses of power.

Ministers from Iceland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia also expressed dismay over the new law, urging Georgia to scrap the bill. The ministers will meet the Georgian president, foreign minister and the head of parliament on Wednesday.

Human Rights Watch also opposed the bill in an X post on Tuesday, saying it aims to “silence media and civil society” and that it “threatens rights”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies