Georgia: Sandwiched between the West and Russia, could the Caucasus nation be the next Ukraine?

(CNN) Protests erupted in Georgia this week after the country’s parliament passed the first reading of a bill that would require some organizations receiving foreign funding to register as “foreign agents.”

It has been likened to a draconian legislative package passed in Russia and condemned by rights groups as an attempt to restrict fundamental freedoms and crack down on dissent in the country.

The developments have led to mass unrest. Thousands of demonstrators gathered in front of the parliament building in Tbilisi on Tuesday evening and waved not only the Georgian flag, but also that of the European Union.

The country, which gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, has long balanced the pro-European sentiment of its citizens with the geopolitical aspirations of powerful neighbor Russia.

In March 2022, Georgia applied for EU membership – an ambition that the proposed legislation could jeopardize.

Here’s a look at what the controversial law means for Georgia and how it got to this point.

What’s in the bills?

According to Giorgi Gogia, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, two draft laws are currently being debated in the Georgian parliament.

The first law requires organizations, including non-governmental organizations and print, online and broadcast media, to register as “foreign agents” if they derive 20 percent or more of their annual income from abroad.

Violators face a fine of US$9,600 (25,000 Georgian lari).

The second bill expands the scope of “foreign influence agents” to include individuals and increases penalties for non-compliance with fines to up to five years in prison.

For Gogia, the draft laws pose a clear threat to human rights in Georgia. “They threaten to marginalize and discredit critical voices in the country. This threat is real,” he said.

Georgian President Salome Zurabichvili speaks with a member of her team at her office in Tbilisi, Georgia, March 8, 2022.

“Under the guise of transparency, recent statements by the Georgian authorities strongly suggest that the law, if passed, will become a weapon to further stigmatize and punish independent groups, media and critical voices in the country.”

The first bill passed by 76 votes in favour, 13 against on Tuesday in a session broadcast live on the lawmakers’ website. The bill must pass further readings to become law.

The President of Georgia, Salome Zurabichvili, has already pledged a veto and backed the protesters in a video message posted on Facebook.

“Those who are supporting this law today, everyone who voted for this law today, is breaking the Constitution. They all alienate us from Europe,” Zurabishvili said in the clip on Tuesday.

“I said on day one that I would veto this law, and I will.”

However, the country’s ruling Georgian Dream party, of which Zurabishvili is not a member, appears to have the parliamentary majority to override a presidential veto, according to Human Rights Watch.

Which countries have passed similar laws?

Georgia’s draft law follows a model of a controversial law in neighboring Russia, which has already imposed draconian restrictions and restrictions on organizations and individuals with foreign ties, critics say.

The law was originally passed in 2012 amid a wave of public protests against allegations of vote-rigging and Vladimir Putin’s intentions to return to the Russian presidency. Organizations that are politically active and receive funding from abroad have had to register as foreign agents and adhere to draconian rules and restrictions.

Russia’s law on foreign agents has since been gradually updated, forming the backbone of an even tighter stranglehold on civil society in Russia over the past decade.

Gogia said the legislation is similar to the law in Russia in that it “attempts to create a special status and legal regime for organizations and media that receive foreign funding and — under the guise of transparency — interfere with freedom of association and media and with their legitimate functions.”

In Belarus, which is close to Russia, there has been a citizenship law with a similar effect since 2002. In December 2022, the Belarusian parliament passed amendments to the law that would allow the government to target members of the political opposition, activists, and other critics in exile, according to Human Rights Watch.

The bill would allow the president to strip Belarusians of citizenship abroad, even if they don’t have any other.

Who is the driving force behind the legislation?

The bills were nominally proposed by a faction in parliament made up of members who had left the ruling Georgian Dream party but remained in the parliamentary majority, according to Gogia.

“However, the ruling Georgian Dream party has given full and public support to the bills and has lobbied for their passage, voting almost unanimously in favor of them at first reading yesterday,” Gogia said.

The think tank European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) believes that the party is leading Georgia into Russia’s sphere of influence.

Participants protest against the draft law in front of the parliament building in Tbilisi on March 8.

“Over the past few years, and particularly over the past 18 months, the ruling coalition of Georgia has taken a number of steps aimed at distancing the country from the West and gradually moving it into the sphere of influence of Russia,” ECFR said in a report said in December.

It pointed to Bidzina Ivanishvili, a former prime minister and billionaire, as the driving force behind this move to Moscow.

“Much of the responsibility for this drift away from the EU rests with the oligarch and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose Georgian dream party dominates the governing coalition,” the report said.

Ivanishvili made a fortune living in Russia during the tumultuous transition to a market economy and was part of an influential group of Russian bankers who supported the re-election of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1996, according to ECFR.

What comparisons were made with Ukraine in 2014?

Analysts have noted similarities between the situation in Georgia and Ukraine – both former Soviet republics caught between East and West.

Think tank ECFR has drawn comparisons between the situation in Georgia and the Russian invasions of Ukraine in 2014 and 2022.

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in 2011 that if Russia had not invaded Georgia in 2008, NATO would have expanded into Georgia.

The 2008 conflict centered on South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two breakaway provinces in Georgia. They are officially part of Georgia but have separate governments that are not recognized by most countries.

Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are backed by Russia.

The 2008 invasion of Georgia lasted only days, but it appeared to have the same revanchist ambitions that fueled Putin’s invasions of Ukraine in 2014 and last year, ECFR writes.

“In this light, Russia’s wars in Georgia and Ukraine appear to be part of a single imperial project,” the report said.

How would the law affect Georgia?

Georgia’s draft law has been widely criticized for having a potentially chilling effect on Georgian civil society, and in particular on NGOs and news organizations with European ties.

It would also hamper Georgia’s bid to join the European Union. An EU statement on Tuesday warned that the law was “inconsistent with EU values ​​and standards” and could have “serious implications for our relations”.

In February, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said that “anyone who votes for this bill” could also jeopardize Georgia’s relations with Europe and the West.

“Georgia’s international and bilateral partners have made it very clear that the passage of a ‘foreign agent’ law would be contrary to Georgia’s stated human rights commitments and its Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” Gogia told CNN.

“I hope the Georgian authorities would heed the warning and instead of passing the laws that would clearly hamper the work of independent groups and media, they should ensure a safe and conducive environment for civil society in the country.”

CNN’s Niamh Kennedy contributed to this report.


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