Opinion & Analysis

Georgia’s ongoing struggle goes beyond the bill. It’s about finally breaking free from Russian influence

In 2023, Georgia found itself in the spotlight due to ongoing large-scale public demonstrations against the introduction of Russian-style laws that threatened to derail the country’s European journey. One such proposal was the now infamous ‘Agents of Foreign Influence’ bill, which the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party was forced to drop due to intense public opposition. Shortly afterwards, Georgia was finally granted EU candidate status.

Now the bill is back under a new guise, as a draft law on the ‘transparency of foreign influence’. Make no mistake about it – it’s the same bill with a fresh coat of paint, despite the GD’s promise to unconditionally withdraw it last year.

Now Georgians are taking to the streets once again. But the struggle is so much more than just trying to get rid of a deeply unpopular legislative proposal. It’s about breaking Georgia free from Russian influence once and for all and finally joining the European family.

What is this bill and what does it mean for Georgia’s European future?

Despite the title change, the bill’s text remains similar. Like a similar Russian law, if passed it would require non-commercial legal entities and media outlets to be labelled as ‘organisations pursuing the interest of a foreign influence’ if they receive more than 20 % of their total annual funding from abroad.

This would subject such entities to a separate legal regime, impose cumbersome reporting requirements and introduce heavy administrative fines in the case of non-compliance through a vaguely defined monitoring process set down by the government.

Suffice to say, the Russian version went on to gradually eliminate many civil society and media organisations within Russia. For Georgia’s bill, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner of Human Rights has declared that it would breach Articles 11 and 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights and would have a chilling effect on Georgian media outlets and civil society, particularly those working on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

By restricting civil liberties and media freedom, the bill violates several conditions attached to Georgia’s EU candidacy. This bill is also just one in a series proposed by the GD that breach conditions that Georgia must abide by to eventually accede to the EU. The ruling party has already abolished mandatory gender quotas for the national parliament and proposed legislation to clamp down on LGBTIQ+ rights. As noted by the EU’s High Representative, such legislation ‘can compromise Georgia’s EU path’.

A bleak domestic picture

The GD, led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili and whose wealth is tied to Russia, cannot openly admit that he’s deviating from the European path, given that nearly 90 % of Georgians support EU integration.

So instead, Ivanishvili, in a notoriously provocative speech argued that the controversial bill would ‘bolster Georgia’s sovereignty’, linking it to a global conspiracy theory by suggesting that decisions are orchestrated by a ‘global party of war,’ which was behind Georgia and Ukraine’s confrontation with Russia.

He accused NGOs and the ‘radical’ opposition of serving this agenda. Naturally, he pledged to persecute his political opponents after the parliamentary elections. And in this spirit, he promised that a ‘sovereign and dignified’ Georgia would still join the EU by 2030.

Last year, massive protests forced the GD to abandon the bill. Now, with parliamentary elections looming, the bill could grant the GD control over civil society and the media, thus helping it to engineer another electoral victory.

President Salome Zurabishvili stands as the Georgian people’s primary representative, urging the EU and the international community to increase their support for Georgia. She has recently vetoed anti-European legislation and pardoned political prisoners.

However, her influence is limited, as her veto powers can be easily overridden by the GD, as has happened several times recently. This all means that the Georgian people really do need the EU’s help to keep their European future alive.

What should the EU do?

By granting candidacy to  Georgia, the EU has put its carrots on the table. Now it’s time for Brussels to wield its stick.

The European Parliament (EP) has adopted a resolution suggesting personal sanctions on ‘Georgia’s sole oligarch’, Ivanishvili. Ivanishvili’s fear of sanctions is definitely real, as he’s already laid the groundwork to dodge such sanctions. He’s done this by passing amendments to Georgia’s tax code to facilitate tax-free transfers of assets from tax havens to Georgia.

Suspending visa liberalisation would only punish the Georgian people, not the GD and the oligarch who runs it. Halting Georgia’s candidate status would also savagely strip away the European future from Georgia’s people, a people who have shown time and time again their dedication to joining the EU. Besides, suspending candidacy would again play into the hands of the GD and Russia.

Instead, the EU should actively address the GD’s actions. Council President Charles Michel should go beyond making phone calls, and should actually go and visit Georgia with other high-level EU officials. This would build on DG NEAR’s Director-General Gert Jan Koopman’s recent visit to Georgia to increase the pressure on the government before the bill has passed its third reading.

During such a visit there should be a clear warning about suspending pre-accession support and halting Georgia’s accession progress if the bill passes. The EU should also increase pressure on the Georgian government to stop violent crackdowns on peaceful demonstrators and should fully get behind Georgian civil society, the independent media, and the Georgian people.

If the bill is adopted, it will require a change in government during the upcoming parliamentary elections to ‘to correct all the laws that do not correspond to Georgia’s European integration’, as President Zurabishvili said. Thus, the EU should increase its monitoring efforts to ensure the elections are properly conducted in the face of likely GD threats and intimidation.

As stated by Michael Roth, ‘Tbilisi is currently the true capital of Europe.’ While Moscow meticulously interferes through Ivanishvili and the GD , Brussels seems oblivious to the increasing urgency of the situation.

The question to ask is, following Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, can the EU afford to lose yet another European country to Russia simply because it chose a European future? If the answer is a resounding ‘no’ , then the EU has no time to lose – it must act now to help Georgia safeguard its European choice.

About the Author:

Dr. Tinatin Akhvlediani is a Research Fellow in the EU Foreign Policy Unit at CEPS, specializing in the EU’s enlargement, neighborhood, and trade policies.

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