Georgia passes controversial Russia-style ‘foreign agents’ law

A brawl broke out this week over the bill in the Georgia Parliament, with rival lawmakers shoving each other. Protesters smashed through barriers at Georgia’s parliament. Police fired tear gas.


Like many Georgians, Rati Khazalia believes he is in a “fight to save” his country’s democracy and free the Eastern European nation from Russia’s attempts to isolate it.

“We’ve been betrayed by our government,” he said. “We’ve been sold to (Russia) for nothing.”

The 29-year-old business owner who founded and runs a print shop in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi made the comments in a phone interview this week as lawmakers in Georgia pushed through Parliament a controversial Russian-style “foreign agents” bill that has sparked some of the biggest protests in the nation since it regained its independence from Moscow in 1991.

Khazalia is among those protesting.

“It’s time for everyone to stand together,” he said.

The law was approved by 84 lawmakers voting in favor to 30 against.

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili said she intends to veto the measure, which she has characterized as “an exact duplicate” of an authoritarian law in Russia that cracks down on anti-corruption campaigners, democracy-promotion organizations and political dissent. However, because the country’s Moscow-sympathetic ruling Georgian Dream party controls the legislature Zourabichvili’s veto can easily be overridden.

Video broadcast on Georgia television showed fights breaking out in Parliament on Tuesday, with rival lawmakers shoving each other and gesticulating angrily during debates on the bill. After the divisive bill’s passage, protesters smashed through barriers at Georgia’s parliament. Police fired tear gas.

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Here’s what Georgia’s “foreign agents” law is and why it’s stirring controversy.

What is Georgia’s ‘foreign agents’ law?

The law requires any organizations in Georgia who receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as so-called agents of foreign influence.

Critics say the bill, promoted by the Georgian Dream party and its pro-Russian billionaire founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, is an attempt to sabotage the country’s path to further integration with the European Union and West more broadly. Ivanishvili is a former prime minister who wields significant political influence.

Georgia was granted EU candidate status in December. The EU has said the bill is “incompatible with European values” and could hurt the country’s efforts to become a member of the bloc.

The bill’s supporters say it is needed to promote political transparency, to fight against “pseudo-liberal values” promoted by foreign civil society groups and to preserve the country’s sovereignty.

Natalie Sabanadze, Georgia’s former ambassador to the EU, said the measure is known in Georgia as the “Russian law” because it is “modeled almost entirely on laws passed in Russia in 2012 that basically killed off its civil society,” referring to Russia’s political opposition and groups that promote democratic rights and free speech. Many Russians were silenced or forced to leave the country after these laws were passed in Russia.

In fact, Russia has used its foreign agents law to decimate political dissent and it is one of the reasons, along with a tight grip on Russia’s security state, that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been able to stay in power for so long.

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Sabanadze said that Georgians have been protesting the law in huge numbers for weeks because the country has “quite a vibrant civil society” and it is “understood the new law puts that in jeopardy.”

Last week, the U.S. said it was “deeply troubled” by the law. U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the U.S. was “alarmed about democratic backsliding in Georgia.” Sullivan wrote on X, the social media platform, that “Georgian Parliamentarians face a critical choice − whether to support the Georgian people’s EuroAtlantic aspirations or pass a Kremlin-style foreign agents’ law that runs counter to democratic values.”

A ‘turning point’ in U.S.-Georgia relations?

After the vote passed, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs James O’Brien said the law “could be a turning point in what has been till now a constructive and productive partnership” between the Georgia and the U.S. He said that if the law “goes forward” the U.S. will impose travel restrictions and financial sanctions against people involved in drafting and supporting the bill.

On Wednesday, Zurabishvili, Georgia’s president, said the nation was “returning to the past” with the new law, a reference to when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union.

Georgia: West or East?

Surveys show that the vast majority of Georgians favor closer ties with the West, even if their government in recent years has appeared to pull the country in the opposite direction.

In an interview in Tbilisi in 2022, Khazalia, the business owner, said that living in Georgia it’s not always possible to see which political direction the country is going. “Is it to the West? Or is to the East?” he said.

‘Our government is a pro-Russian puppet’

On Tuesday, Khazalia said the passage of the “Russian law” made the situation a lot clearer.

“Our government is a pro-Russian puppet,” he said, as he prepared to join the protests Tuesday night. “Our only choice now is to show the world we want to live in a democratic country.”

Khazalia said that many businesses in Tbilisi have closed and that the protests are being attended “by all generations, all classes, all ages, all interests and groups and ethnicities.”

Russian exiles flee to Georgia

“I’ve also seen some Russians,” he added, referring to the tens of thousands of exiles who’ve descended on Georgia since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, a source of tension in Tbilisi.

Still, much of the murkiness around Georgia’s politics has to do with its history and connective tissue to Russia.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, both Russia and Georgia were newly independent nations.

But in the years that followed, Russia-backed separatists in Georgia sought to declare independence for two regions, which led to a war in 2008. The war ended in days, with Russian troops occupying the regions. Today, Abkhazia and South Ossetia (or the Tskhinvali region, as Georgians prefer to call it) remain under Russian control.

The conflict essentially meant Russia had invaded the bordering portions of an independent country.

It also announced Moscow’s determination, Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland has said, “to force a country (it) regarded as within Russia’s sphere of influence to heel.”

In fact, many international affairs specialists in the West such as Fried regard Russia’s 2008 actions in Georgia as a kind of prelude to the Ukraine invasion. In 2014, Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region on the Black Sea and backed separatists in Donbas, a vast eastern industrial heartlands area dotted with factories and coal plants.

Russian then launched a larger-scale Ukraine invasion in 2022.

In Georgia, as in Ukraine, while Russia seized its bordering regions, the rest of the country took steps to unite with the West. It applied to be a member of the European Union economic bloc in March 2022. Like Ukraine, it has aspirations to join NATO, the military alliance that backs Western allies against Russian aggression.

Siding with Russia ‘would be political suicide’

Sabanadze, Georgia’s former ambassador to the EU who is now a senior research fellow at London think tank Chatham House, said the ruling Georgian Dream party has, in the last few years, overturned the country’s broad “EuroAtlantic trajectory” that it has had since its independence.

She ascribed this largely to Georgian billionaire Ivanishvili and his connections to Russia, the country where he made all his money (in banking and metals). She said Ivanishvili likely believes Russia will win the war in Ukraine.

“On top of that, he is personally really mad at the EU and U.S., has a conspiratorial mind and believes the Americans and Europeans especially are funding NGOs to undermine him,” she said.

Ivanishvili could not immediately be reached for comment. The Kremlin has said that the new law in Georgia and the debate around is being used to “provoke anti-Russian” sentiment.

“Of course, no political party in Georgia can say they are going in the Russian direction,” said Sabanadze, who said that even the Georgian Dream party is careful not express openly pro-Russian views when some 80% of Georgians say they want closer ties with the EU and NATO.

“That would be political suicide.”


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