Home Immigration Law Georgia’s protesters won the battle, but not the war – Foreign Policy

Georgia’s protesters won the battle, but not the war – Foreign Policy

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Georgia’s protesters won the battle, but not the war – Foreign Policy

On March 7, a Georgian woman passionately and fearlessly waved a soaked EU flag against water cannons amid a large-scale protest in Tbilisi. The anger and determination to fight for Georgia’s European future was a general feeling that drove tens of thousands of people to the streets to protest against the so-called Foreign Agents Law, which aimed to ban all civil society organizations and media outlets, more than 20 percent received to label their funding from abroad as “foreign agents.” Many demonstrators marched and waved Georgian, EU and Ukrainian flags.

On March 7, a Georgian woman passionately and fearlessly waved a soaked EU flag against water cannons amid a large-scale protest in Tbilisi. The anger and determination to fight for Georgia’s European future was a general feeling that drove tens of thousands of people to the streets to protest against the so-called Foreign Agents Law, which aimed to ban all civil society organizations and media outlets, more than 20 percent received to label their funding from abroad as “foreign agents.” Many demonstrators marched and waved Georgian, EU and Ukrainian flags.

The main message that the protesters wanted to convey to both the government and the West was the desire to abolish the “foreign influence transparency” law, commonly known as the “Russian law.”

The official justification for enforcing this initiative was the need to ensure transparency of funding. But the Georgian law’s similarity to Russia’s foreign agents law, which the Kremlin has used to suppress independent and critical voices for more than a decade, worried Georgians and the international community. The legislative initiative was seen as a threat to Georgia’s candidate status and eventual EU membership.

Georgia’s version of the law was introduced by a parliamentary group called People’s Power. It is a relatively new group known for its anti-Western stance and includes lawmakers who formerly belonged to the ruling Georgian Dream party.

The Georgian government received several warnings and calls from foreign officials urging it to abandon the highly controversial law. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell stressed that the law would have a “chilling effect on civil society and media organizations” and deprive citizens of the opportunity to benefit from their work. Borrell also noted that the law is in direct contradiction to EU values ​​and standards. The U.S. Embassy in Georgia also sent a direct message, calling the law “Kremlin-inspired.”

But the concerns and advice of Georgia’s friends and strategic partners failed to reverse the decision before massive protests erupted outside Georgia’s parliament. Proponents of the law appear to have underestimated the potential consequences of their determination to pass the law, assuming that Georgians would be apathetic or that opposition would wane.

From the era of Mikheil Saakashvili’s presidency to the reign of the “Georgian Dream,” citizens had a variety of grievances that often led them to the streets. In the recent past, street protests have occurred due to the results of presidential and parliamentary elections. Thousands of people marched in the streets of Tbilisi in November 2019 when Georgian lawmakers failed to pass constitutional amendments to hold elections under proportional representation.

According to a December 2022 opinion poll by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), 61 percent of Georgians believe that none of Georgia’s parties represent their interests. The high level of apathy led supporters of the foreign agents law to believe that the masses would not bother to take to the streets to protect non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and media.

By falsely comparing it to the American Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), which was introduced in 1938 to combat Nazi and Soviet propaganda, the law’s initiators and proponents also hoped to blur the lines and portray the law as compatible with democratic aspirations .

Hoping that few in Georgia would understand that FARA does not target NGOs but rather aims to lobby companies operating in the United States on behalf of foreign governments, Georgia’s version of the law would be easily implemented been. The initiators even went so far as to present two versions of the law. They claim the first version is a more liberal law than FARA and the second is a direct translation of US law focused on regulating foreign lobbying.

The problem is that Georgians immediately realized that the law had nothing to do with Georgia’s stated European ambitions. Most importantly, despite deep polarization, diverse political preferences and social divisions, there is a single goal that the majority of Georgians agree on (81 percent according to the NDI survey), and that is Georgia’s European future.

Ironically, about a year ago Georgia had an unprecedented opportunity to pursue its goal of rapprochement with the EU. In view of the war in Ukraine, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova applied for EU candidate status. While Moldova and Ukraine received candidate status, Georgia – once the frontrunner – settled for a so-called European perspective – defined as the development of “a European public sphere informed by core EU values ​​such as respect for human dignity, equality, inclusion and the rule of law” – and a chance to try again. Meanwhile, the EU has presented the Georgian government with a list of 12 ambitious requirements that must be met if Georgia wants to be reconsidered for candidate status.

The EU recommendations touch on some of the most problematic issues, such as the need to overcome political polarization, ensure a free and pluralistic media environment and involve civil society more closely in decision-making processes. The proposed foreign agents law violates these recommendations and would almost certainly end Georgia’s last hopes of being granted candidate status – something that could lead to further protests and jeopardize Georgian Dream’s re-election chances.

The threat to Georgia’s European future drove tens of thousands of people onto the streets. The younger generations, considered largely apolitical, stunned the political elite with their fearless determination to confront the water cannons while chanting “No to Russian law.”

This time Georgians won by forcing the government to withdraw the law. Still, many fear that this could only be a temporary, strategic retreat and that a new plan could be in the pipeline that would better prepare the ground for the reinstatement of the Foreign Agents Act. As much as this law would give the government more control over civil society and the media, it would also cut Georgia off from its European path. With parliamentary elections approaching in 2024, this would be a risky move given how strong pro-European sentiment is currently across all sectors of Georgian society. If the EU does indeed deny Georgia candidate status, the government will likely face far greater protests.

For its part, the Kremlin has been deeply disappointed by the government’s lack of resilience to withstand the protests and enforce a law that has served it so well at home.

Russian officials and propagandists quickly accused the West of orchestrating another revolutionary scenario and even threatened Georgia with a new invasion. RT chief Margarita Simonyan claimed the protests were an attempt to open a second front against Russia and called on the Kremlin to bomb Tbilisi “without a fuss.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov assessed the protests as attempts at regime change orchestrated by the West.

Such threats are empty attempts – especially given Russia’s failures in Ukraine – to weaken pro-Western sentiment in Georgia by spreading fear of war. The Kremlin’s response alone speaks volumes and shows how damaging the implementation of the foreign agents law may have been for Georgia.

For now, the demonstrators managed to avert a serious setback to Georgia’s international reputation and a dramatic deterioration in its fragile democracy. But since the law’s forced withdrawal, rhetoric has increased to portray the law as compatible with Western democratic systems by citing misleading examples from the United States and Canada (Canada recently announced it may have a very different law governing foreign laws will introduce). influence in a completely different political context.)

It is highly unlikely that the Foreign Agents Act will return to parliament in its old form, but the current disinformation campaign in favor of the law suggests that a renamed version may be reintroduced before the 2024 election. Such a decision will almost certainly sabotage Georgia’s chances of gaining EU candidate status, while pro-European Georgians would likely accuse the government of jeopardizing the process.

Sustained, large-scale protests would ultimately threaten the long-term stability of the regime. Instead of developing deeply regressive initiatives, the country’s focus should be on meeting EU recommendations. Georgia can ill afford to miss this opportunity.