What is Georgia's 'foreign agents' bill, and why is Europe so nervous?


Georgia's parliament is set to pass a highly controversial so-called “foreign agents” bill that has sparked mass protests in the former Soviet republic in the Caucasus mountains.

Tens of thousands of people are protesting against the legislation in the capital, Tbilisi. Critics have warned that it mirrors Russia's pre-approved foreign agents law and could jeopardize Georgia's bid to join the European Union.

But Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze has said the government is not planning any “substantial changes” to the bill, and has vowed to pass it on Tuesday, when lawmakers in the former Soviet country are expected to vote. Is.

Here's what you need to know about the proposed law and the uproar it's causing.

The bill would require organizations that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as “agents of foreign influence” or face stiff penalties.

The legislation was drafted by the Georgian Dream Party, which together with its allies controls parliament. The proposal will be voted on on Tuesday and is expected to pass.

In an interview with CNN, Georgian President Salome Zorabicholi described the bill as a “complete duplicate” of its Russian counterpart.

He has vowed to veto the bill, but that won't mean much. Georgia's government is a parliamentary system, so Zorabicholi is effectively a figurehead. The real power rests with Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze. The billionaire founder of the Georgian Dream, former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, also has significant political influence.

Vano Shalamov/AFP/Getty Images

About 50,000 protesters gathered in Tbilisi on Sunday to protest against the proposed legislation.

A couple of reasons.

The proposed law is modeled after a similar one in Russia that the Kremlin has used to rapidly crack down on opposition and civil society. Many Georgians fear that their foreign agents bill will be used in the same way as its northern neighbor: by going after non-governmental organizations with financial ties abroad to stifle dissent and free speech. To terminate the expression.

Georgian Dream claims the law will promote transparency and national sovereignty and has responded to Western criticism of the proposal.

But the potential passage of the law touches on a more existential question: whether Georgia's future lies with Europe or Russia.

Georgia, like Ukraine, has been caught between two geopolitical forces since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Many Georgians feel a deep animosity toward the Kremlin, which invaded Georgia in 2008 and annexed about 20% of its internationally recognized territory – a proportion that Russia holds in Ukraine. is occupied

Georgian Dream has long been accused of harboring pro-Russian sympathies, especially given that Ivanshvili made his fortune in the Soviet Union.

enthusiastically So much so that at one point, the legislators started uproar over this bill.

Polls show that about 80% of Georgians favor joining the European Union rather than going into the Kremlin's orbit, and many of those who favor deeper ties with the West have taken to the streets. .

Massive protests against the bill have been going on late at night for a month in Tbilisi. About 50,000 people turned out in the capital, home to about one million people, on Sunday evening against what they called “Russian law”.

There have also been counter-demonstrations. One saw an extraordinary speech to a crowd of supporters who had traveled to Tbilisi from the Georgian countryside, where the Georgian Dream enjoys strong support.

This address was an expression of deep anxiety and independence. Ivanishvili claimed that Georgia was being controlled by a “pseudo-elite raised by a foreign country” and vowed to go after his political opponents after the October elections.

Yes, just last year.

Georgia's government tried to pass the same law but was forced to back down after a week of fierce fighting. Demonstrations, in which citizens waving EU flags were responded with water cannons.

The bill was reintroduced in March, about a month after Kobakhidze became prime minister. This time, officials appear determined to push through the legislation.

Miran Miladze/Anadolu/Getty Images

Protests against the bill continued till Monday.

White House national security adviser Jack Sullivan wrote on X that Washington is “deeply concerned about the Democratic retreat in Georgia.”

He said Georgian parliamentarians face a critical choice – whether to support the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of the Georgian people or pass a Kremlin-style foreign agents law that goes against democratic values. “We stand with the people of Georgia.”

The Kremlin has claimed the law is being used to “stir up anti-Russian sentiment”, adding that protests against it are being fueled by “external” influences.

“It's now the norm for a large number of states to do everything they can to protect themselves from outside influence, from foreign influence on domestic politics. And all countries are taking action in one form or another. , but all these bills have the same goal,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in April. “Again, there is no way to connect this bill and the desire to connect Georgia's internal politics with some kind of Russian influence. There is no such thing.”

European Commission President Ursula van der Leyen said in a statement earlier this month that she was watching developments in George with “great concern” and reiterated Brussels' concern over the law.

“Georgia is at a crossroads. It must stay on the path to Europe,” he said.

Of course.

Georgia first applied for EU membership in 2022 and was granted candidate status in December, an important but still early step in the process of becoming a member of the bloc. However, Brussels said last month that passing the law would have a “negative impact” on Georgia's path to EU membership.

“Georgia has a vibrant civil society that contributes to the country's successful progress towards EU membership. The proposed legislation will limit the ability of civil society and media organizations to operate freely, limiting freedom of expression. can and unfairly stigmatize organizations providing benefits to Georgian citizens,” EU officials said.

“The EU urges Georgia to refrain from adopting legislation that could compromise Georgia's path to the EU, a path supported by the overwhelming majority of Georgian citizens.”

CNN's Anna Chernova contributed to this report.

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