Law on Foreign Influence: Should we expect aggravation in Georgia?



The draft of the notorious law «On the Transparency of Foreign Influence» (that is its new official name) was under consideration in the parliamentary committee on legal issues and, according to the regulations, was sent to the bureau (similar to the presidium of the parliament). It is expected that after possible finalization and coordination, it will be adopted at one of the next plenary sessions — by voting in the highest legislative body of the country.

The decision of the ruling party caused a storm of indignation not only among the opposition forces, but also among the head of state and numerous «friends of Georgia». The President of Georgia Salome Zurabishvili was one of the first to condemn the initiative of the parliamentary majority to «resuscitate» the bill. In her opinion, the Georgian Dream has actually put the country’s course towards European integration under a big question mark: «The law on foreign agents reintroduced in the Georgian parliament is a provocation, which in addition crosses out all European prospects for Georgia».

Apparently, we should expect Zurabishvili to use her constitutional right of veto, which the President of Georgia has, at least this has already been announced by Giorgi Mskhiladze, the Parliamentary Secretary of the President.

It is noteworthy that the bureau of the Georgian parliament refused to register an alternative draft law on foreign agents initiated by the opposition — «On Protection from the Influence of the Russian Federation». It was introduced by the party of former Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia «For Georgia». According to the opposition bill, «agents of influence» of Russia, who receive funding from the Russian Federation and act in Georgia in the interests of the Russian Federation, would be banned, and it was proposed to criminalize them.

There is no doubt that Georgian Dream’s return to the draft law on foreign agents is a manifestation of internal political struggle and is of particular importance for strengthening the legal framework of the state. It is primarily directed against Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) party and the smaller nationalist parties and movements that have joined it.

According to the head of the Georgian parliament, Shalva Papuashvili, the Georgian NGO sector, which is funded from abroad, is full of revenge-seeking officials from the UNM era and is the main problem for civil society: «The main problem is that today the NGO sector is dominated by the political leaders of the National Movement».

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze said at an April 8 government meeting that the draft law «On the Transparency of Foreign Influence» is necessary to understand the sources of funding for NGOs and media outlets and to regulate their reporting. After reviewing the reports of several NGOs at the session, parliamentarians concluded that since 2012, NGOs have declared only 18 percent of their income. «We do not have any information on what purposes the rest of the undeclared funds were spent for, and this amounts to at least 70 million GEL (over $26 million)», the Georgian prime minister said.

As counterarguments, opposition figures do not ignore the Russian law on foreign agents («On control over the activities of persons under foreign influence» -Ed.), from which, according to their belief, the text proposed by the Georgian Dream was copied. At the same time, they completely «forget» about the American analog of the exact same law that has been in existence for several decades. Thus, Tinatin Bokuchava, a deputy from Saakashvili’s opposition party UNM, stated that the phraseology of the authorities «does not differ in meaning or form from the statements of Vladimir Putin and Russian leaders about Russian NGOs and foreign agents».

This is what Dmitry Medoev, candidate of political sciences, senior researcher at the Center for Eurasian Studies of the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, said in an interview with GEOFOR:

- Today there are about 10 thousand NGOs registered in Georgia, among which only a few can be singled out, and that in connection with the upcoming parliamentary elections: Transparency International — Georgia is a branch of the influential international organization Transparency International; International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy; Georgian Young Lawyers Association; Open Society — Georgia and others. Of equal interest is the list of numerous donors to Georgian NGOs. Among them are USAID, Council of Europe & European Union, British Council, Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), Open Society Foundations, European Commission, European Democratic Foundation, European Exchange, Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC). And so on and so forth.

In addition, religious organizations, which are registered as NGOs and can be classified as foreign agents, are also consumers of donor tranches in Georgia. A comparative analysis of statistical data shows that the number of foreign, particularly Western sects in Georgia has been growing recently. The problem of politicization of Western religious cults in Georgia really exists and comes from the United States and Europe. The geographical area of their activities is expanding and their political and social activity is increasing. The previously held opinion about the need to ban their participation in political life has changed, and today sectarians in Georgia actively and organizationally vote, strictly following the instructions of their pastors.

Since the beginning of the 90s, there has been an increase in the influence of such associations as «Jesus Christ Movement», «Hare Krishna», «Mission of Divine Light», «Transcendental Meditation», «United Church of Moon», «Mormons», George Russell’s «Jehovah’s Witnesses», etc. A Protestant association, the Baptists, has been active in Georgia for a long time. Pentecostals are among the active associations, the spread of the «Society of True Christians», «Sabbatarians», «Evangelists» is also noticeable. Officially or unofficially there are organized groups and missionaries of Krishnaites, Munists, Baha’is and other so-called new religious movements.

Almost all Georgian media, experts, as well as «free» media (de facto all of them are foreign agents) openly support Ukraine and sincerely expect Russia’s defeat soon. This thesis is shared by all political forces of Georgia without exception. There is a general opinion that Russia, weakened as a result of defeat, will have to return Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgia, and especially in case of victory — in gratitude for the policy of non-interference and non-adherence to Western sanctions.

In addition, there are more hidden threats. During the 30 years of Georgia’s existence as an independent state, the American side has passed through its education system and all kinds of educational programs a large part of the Georgian managerial apparatus. In fact, a layer of middle-level managers has been created in the administration both at the center and at the level of municipalities, influencing the practical work on the ground.

- Today every ministry and department is made up of 50–60% of people who have studied in the West, have business, often real estate, friends or relatives there, link their future and the future of their children with the Western economic system, — says Dmitry Medoev. — Among this category of citizens there is a large number of «agents of influence» and informal leaders who successfully participate in the formation of public opinion and the necessary discourse. This is a more complex problem than it may seem at first glance. Since it is precisely the control over the media, various NGOs and the education system that allowed the Americans to successfully reshape the Georgian national project into an anti-Russian one in the 1990–2000s.

Exactly one year ago, after the famous March 2023 protests of many thousands, the political situation in Georgia stabilized relatively quickly, but that leaves many unresolved issues. The active phase of street protests was replaced by battles of opposing sides in the country’s parliament and the Georgian segment of social networks. Intra-party consultations and «debriefings» were held to adjust the strategy and change the tactics of future actions.

On April 9, 2023 there was an attempt to inflame the situation. Its failure was not only due to the loss of influence on the public on the part of the opposition leaders and the counteraction of the authorities. Even then it was clear that the opposition took a time-out until spring-summer 2024 before the October parliamentary elections.

Taking into account the mistakes made by the opposition leaders in 2023, when the repeated protest action was wrongly scheduled for Palm Sunday — April 9, this year we should hardly expect mass demonstrations before the end of Lent and Easter — a very important religious holiday for Orthodox Georgia, when the Church does not encourage fuss and aggression, — says Dmitry Medoev. — With the strengthening of political and financial support of Western donors, the continuation of protest actions, apparently, can be expected closer to the second half of May, to the Day of Independence. And further in August-September, when the whole Georgia traditionally protests against the results of the August 2008 war and «Russian occupation of Georgian lands».