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Why are Georgians Protesting Against the ‘Foreign Agents’ Bill?

Written by Anoushka Patel

Edited by Queenie Lin and Annika Lilja



In recent days, protesters numbering in the thousands have rocked Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, protesting a piece of legislation that is currently going through Parliament: the so-called ‘Foreign Agents’ bill. The bill has been dubbed the “Russian law” due to its resemblance to a similar piece of legislature passed in Russia over a decade ago. If enacted, the bill would require organisations in Georgia, such as NGOs, think tanks, media outlets, and campaign groups that receive more than 20% of their funding from outside of Georgia, to register as “foreign agents.” The bill has sparked a political crisis in Georgia and is a clear attempt by the leading Georgian Dream Party to stifle criticism of their actions. 


Indeed, many have criticised the bill for being authoritarian in nature, and designed to move Georgia away from the West, at a time when around 80% of the country wants to join the European Union, according to polling by the National Democratic Institute. 

Transparency International Georgia - a non-profit anti-corruption organisation - said in an official statement on their website that the purpose of the bill was to “change the country’s foreign course and the completion of Russification.” US President Joe Biden’s administration has also expressed that it is “deeply concerned” by the Georgian Parliament’s introduction of the bill (Matthew Miller). State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a press statement from the US Department of State that “it undermines Georgia’s commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration and risks pulling Georgia off its European path.”


Georgian security forces used water cannons, teargas, and stun grenades against demonstrators who were protesting outside the Parliamentary building on Rustaveli Avenue, prompting criticism from rights groups. Sixty-three protesters were detained after demonstrations on the 30th of April, according to Georgia’s interior ministry.

There were widespread reports of police violence against journalists, while the chair of the main opposition United National Movement, Levan Khabeishvili, was beaten.

Georgia is falling behind other EU candidates such as Ukraine and Moldova in the race to open accession talks, and fears are growing in Brussels that the Georgian Dream Party is looking to actively derail the process with its repressive legislation.  


The government’s opponents contend that EU membership is detrimental to the Georgian Dream party, which they argue is cautious about upsetting relations with Moscow by taking a Westward political trajectory. It can also be said that Georgia’s political elites fear their interests could be harmed by the sort of judicial reforms and accountability demanded by EU membership. 


Furthermore, since the start of the war in Ukraine in 2022, the government has refused to implement Western sanctions on Russia, instead deepening trade relations with its neighbor and benefitting from Moscow’s need for regional partners to help it circumvent sanctions. Georgia shares a long border with Russia, and was invaded by Moscow’s troops in 2008; Georgian Dream has insisted on the need for balanced relations between East and West. Critics, however, point out that the founder of the Georgian Dream, oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, made his fortune in Russia and has cultivated friendlier ties with the Kremlin than previous Georgian governments. 


The harsh crackdown on protesters by the state authorities is perhaps a sign that rather than encouraging transparency as the government alleges, the ‘Foreign Agents’ bill will be used to crack down on dissent in the run-up to the parliamentary elections that will take place in Georgia in October this year.  


 

Sources:


Bayer, L. (2024) Georgian police fire teargas as huge ‘foreign agents’ bill protests Rock Tbilisi – as it happened, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/live/2024/may/01/georgian-police-fire-teargas-as-huge-foreign-agents-bill-protests-rock-tbilisi-europe-live 


Chachua, D. (2023) Library of NDI Georgia public opinion research, NDI POLL: Georgian citizens remain committed to EU membership; Nation united in its dreams and shared challenges. Available at: https://www.ndi.org/georgia-polls



Light, F. (2024) Georgia at political crossroads as ‘foreign agent’ bill draws protests, Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/georgia-political-crossroads-foreign-agent-bill-draws-protests-2024-04-29/ 


Transparency International. (2024) Transparency International urges Georgian government to withdraw “transparency of foreign influence law,” Transparency.org. Available at: https://www.transparency.org/en/press/transparency-international-urges-georgian-government-withdraw-transparency-of-foreign-influence-law 


Miller, M. (2024) Georgian draft legislation - United States Department of State, US Department of State. Available at: https://www.state.gov/georgian-draft-legislation/#:~:text=The%20draft%20legislation%20poses%20a,Georgia%20off%20its%20European%20path

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