Massive protests earlier this month forced the Georgian government to finally drop its attempt to ram legislation through its Parliament that it said would curb “foreign influence” but that actually would have crushed civil society and any political opposition.
The ruling Georgian Dream Party had claimed the legislation was necessary to raise awareness of foreign influence in the country. While the bill has been withdrawn, it is merely a symptom of the country’s broader democratic backsliding, a trend that won’t be reversed by the mere failure of this legislation. As the Biden administration conducts its second Summit for Democracy this week to advance its commitment to curbing authoritarian trends, it should maintain the attention to Georgia spurred by this near miss.
The proposed “foreign agents” law was similar to legislation approved in Russia in 2012. There, President Vladimir Putin’s government has used it to block a range of civil society organizations and independent media from doing their jobs by imposing hefty fines, placing legal restrictions on their work, and in many cases forcing them to shut down entirely. In Russia and in other countries in the region, the term “foreign agents” has been used to smear human rights groups and pro-democracy organizations as being subsidiaries of outside forces, when in reality they represent grassroots movements that are critical of authoritarian regimes.
The result of the law in Russia has been that any semblance of Russian civil society with an ability to monitor and critique the state has been eradicated. The law allowed Putin to further consolidate his power, which was exemplified when the human rights organization Memorial was banned two months before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Memorial was one of three organizations that shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year.
Georgian civil society organizations and independent media outlets feared that if their government’s legislation passed, it would severely undercut their ability to function and, most likely, cause them to stop operating in Georgia. The European Union and the United States, the biggest two donors, objected to the legislation, as did prominent international NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Georgia had been one of the strongest partners for the United States as a bulwark against Russia in the region, while continuing to wrestle with the territories that Russia has occupied since its invasion there in 2008. But as Georgian domestic institutions weaken and some of its leaders have signaled closer ties with Russia, the whole country’s ability to effectively counter Russian malign influence has waned. The recent debacle with the foreign agents law has seriously damaged the government’s credibility in Brussels and Washington.
When asked about U.S.-Georgia relations in a March 7 press briefing three days before the legislation was withdrawn and amid the widespread protests in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price replied that the United States is “concerned, that partnership could be – at least in part – jeopardized should a law like this move forward.” This is hardly the kind of reaction the Georgian government would want to prompt if it were truly committed to a strong partnership with the United States and ultimate accession to the EU. In fact, the European Commission last June opted to delay granting Georgia EU candidate status.
The foreign agents law is just the latest in a series of steps taken by the ruling party to capture, or at least undermine, many of Georgia’s key democratic institutions. The government has attempted to curb the independence of the judiciary, tried to undermine or seize control of a sizeable portion of the media, and attacked any organizations that sought greater transparency and oversight.
The slow degradation of Georgia’s institutions from the ruling party in recent years has implications beyond just domestic politics. It has made Georgia more susceptible to interference from Russia and a less reliable ally for the United States, and reduced its prospects as a candidate to join the EU.
While public condemnation from the Biden administration has been strong recently, the administration should also seriously examine conditioning non-security assistance to Georgia to convey the gravity of its concerns. The Georgian government should not expect the same level of support it has enjoyed for many years if its leaders are actively undermining the country’s role as a U.S. ally in the region.
The role that former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili continues to play informally in the politics of Georgian Dream also should come under more scrutiny from the United States. Despite having no official role, Ivanishvili is widely believed to still operate as the de facto head of the party. Ivanishvili’s role in recent years has looked less like a participant in the political process and more like that of an oligarch. As the country’s wealthiest person, Ivanishvili maintains an influential role in Georgian Dream, but one with little transparency. The Biden administration should ask for more transparency from the Georgian government regarding his role, and work with the EU to investigate whether Ivanishvili’s activities violate any existing sanctions regimens or other shared policies related to Georgian security.
Georgia is slated for parliamentary elections next year. The conduct and credibility of that vote will be an important indicator of whether the country embraces more democracy or whether it becomes less democratic and even more susceptible to Russian interference.
When domestic institutions in Georgia are undercut by proposals like the foreign agents law, the country’s overall security is weakened. It is essential that the United States apply pressure to the current Georgian government to advance much-needed reforms, especially given public support for eventual EU membership, and to ensure its vibrant civil society can operate freely. Without U.S. pressure, the current government will feel more emboldened to implement other laws that undermine Georgia’s democracy.
Georgian civil society has been raising the alarm about the decline of democratic institutions in the country for years. The government now has clearly demonstrated the potential damaging policies it may enact if its officials are left unchecked.
IMAGE: People take part in a demonstration outside Georgia’s Parliament in Tbilisi on March 8, 2023 called by Georgian opposition and civil society groups against government plans to introduce controversial “foreign agent” legislation, reminiscent of Russian legislation to pressure critics. The calls came after more than sixty of people were detained and dozens of police officers wounded in violent clashes that broke out in the capital Tbilisi late the day before, amid fears of democratic backsliding in Georgia. (Photo by VANO SHLAMOV/AFP via Getty Images)
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