In Russia’s Backyard, Georgians Protest Against Moscow-Inspired Bill

Author: Editors Desk, Ann M. Simmons Source: WSJ:
May 1, 2024 at 14:16
A protester clashed with riot police during a demonstration against the bill near Parliament in Tbilisi, Georgia. PHOTO: DAVID MDZINARISHVILI/SHUTTERSTOCK
A protester clashed with riot police during a demonstration against the bill near Parliament in Tbilisi, Georgia. PHOTO: DAVID MDZINARISHVILI/SHUTTERSTOCK

The legislation is seen as a Russian ploy to weaken growing ties between the former Soviet state and Europe

Proposals for a restrictive new political-funding law has set off a storm in Georgia, triggering days of street protests from government opponents who say it represents Russia’s latest attempt to export its legal standards to countries that made up the old Soviet Union and are instead urging a decisive break with Moscow. 

Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protests Tuesday night, and tensions remained high Wednesday as Parliament discussed a bill requiring political or civil groups that receive a fifth of their funding from abroad be labeled as “foreign agents.”

Russia in recent years has systematically used a similar law to sideline and stigmatize opposition and civil-society groups. Political analysts in Tbilisi have warned that the ruling pro-Moscow Georgian Dream party and its supporters are now moving in a similarly authoritarian direction to align themselves more closely to Russian President Vladimir Putin

The bill threatens violators with significant fines and places Georgia’s government at a geopolitical crossroads—simultaneously seeking a path toward joining the European Union while also managing Russia’s attempts to maintain influence in its historical backyard, where Stalin was born and which now commands important trade routes to the Central Asian steppe and across the Black Sea. 

Many Georgians are losing interest in keeping ties with Moscow and are increasingly looking West, however. Pro-European sentiment is high, with polls showing that more than 80% of Georgians favor joining the EU. The former Soviet republic lost roughly a fifth of its territory to Moscow-backed separatists in a five-day war in 2008. Russia is eager to ensure Georgia remains in its orbit, analysts said.


A demonstrator stood in front of riot police during a protest against the bill near the Parliament building in Tbilisi on Tuesday. PHOTO: ZURAB TSERTSVADZE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
A demonstrator stood in front of riot police during a protest against the bill near the Parliament building in Tbilisi on Tuesday. PHOTO: ZURAB TSERTSVADZE/ASSOCIATED PRESS

As a result, the legislation is facing a bumpy ride in the country’s Parliament, where it needs to pass three readings to become law. Late Wednesday, the bill passed its second reading, after lawmakers failed to complete a vote the day before. 

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze said that a third and final reading of the draft legislation would take place in a couple of weeks and that Parliament would then override a veto threatened by the country’s president, Salome Zourabichvili, the Russian news agency TASS reported. 

Supporters of the bill argue that it would bring transparency to foreign influence in domestic politics. Similar measures have been adopted by Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, both former Soviet republics that remain in Russia’s orbit.

But analysts who follow Georgian politics said that adopting the legislation could hinder the country’s prospects of joining the EU, which granted Georgia candidate status in December.

“Georgia stands at a critical geopolitical crossroads,” said Kornely Kakachia, a political scientist at Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University. “Should it lean toward authoritarian consolidation, it risks jeopardizing its European aspirations and democratic future for the foreseeable future. Simultaneously, as Georgia becomes more authoritarian, it risks alienating itself from the West, potentially drawing closer to Russia, China, and other authoritarian regimes.”

Critics of the foreign-agent bill point to the Soviet-era connotations of the foreign-agent label and how Moscow—which ruled Georgia until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991—has used the law to silence anyone considered an opponent, including journalists and human-rights activists.

“Russia is enjoying the show, that’s for sure,” said Natalie Sabanadze, a senior research fellow at the Russia and Eurasia Program at the British think tank Chatham House. “The only power that is benefiting from this is definitely Russia because that puts Georgia in a clear standoff with Western partners.”


Demonstrators rallying against the bill in Tbilisi. PHOTO: GIORGI ARJEVANIDZE/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
Demonstrators rallying against the bill in Tbilisi. PHOTO: GIORGI ARJEVANIDZE/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Sabanadze, who previously served as head of the Georgian mission to the EU, added that if Georgia failed to progress on its path to European integration, “there is no standing in limbo,” she said. “Russia takes over, whether it’s literally or figuratively, but the Russian influence will increase.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has called attempts to link the Georgian bill on foreign agents with Russia absurd, telling reporters last month that such measures are “now normal practice for a huge number of states that are doing everything to protect themselves from outside influence, from foreign influence on domestic politics.”

Emil Avdaliani, a professor of international relations at European University in Tbilisi, said that although Russia might not be directly involved in influencing Georgia to adopt the foreign-agent bill, “it does benefit from the widening differences between Tbilisi and Brussels.”

“Moscow,” he said, “might become more comfortable in dealing with Tbilisi and the latter could be more open to further normalization of ties with the northern neighbor.”

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