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Georgia bill passes: Why the West needs to stay out of the protests

Georgia bill passes: Why the West needs to stay out of the protests

Mass demonstrations over a foreign influence legislation has its roots in the delicate balance between Russia and transatlantic community

Analysis | Europe

Mass protests are roiling the Republic of Georgia as tens of thousands have taken to the streets against a proposed bill by the Georgian government on “foreign influence” that has worsened tension in an already polarized Georgian society.

That bill was passed Tuesday after turmoil in which punches were actually thrown between lawmakers on the parliament floor.

Under this law, now before the Georgian parliament, NGOs, media organizations, and trade unions that receive more than 20% of their income from foreign sources would have to register as “organizations serving the interest of a foreign power” and would be monitored by the Justice Ministry.

The Biden administration weighed in over the weekend, with national security adviser Jake Sullivan saying Saturday’s protests showed that “the Georgian people are making their views known.”

“Undeterred by intimidation tactics, tens of thousands of peaceful protestors turned out in rainy Tbilisi today to demand Georgian Dream withdraw the legislation,” he said in a statement posted on X.

The Georgian parliament tabled an almost identical bill last year but withdrew it under domestic and international pressure. However, the ruling Georgian Dream party stressed that this withdrawal was only temporary. A very large proportion of Georgian NGOs get most of their financial support from Western grants (often from organizations funded directly or indirectly by the European Union, the U.S., and other Western states). And while officially apolitical, many of these groups are also aligned with the political opposition to the present government of the Georgian Dream Party — which of course explains the government’s desire to limit their influence.

This law, and the ongoing protests, are also part of the intensifying cold war between Russia and the West, as well as Georgia’s increasingly precarious place in this struggle.

On the one hand, the Georgian government — in power for the past 12 years — has actively pursued EU and (less determinedly) NATO membership. In December 2023, the EU granted Georgia candidate status. A large majority of the Georgian population favors integration with the EU and, to a lesser extent, NATO (goals that are enshrined in the country’s revised 2018 constitution). The government has condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and provided humanitarian aid to the Ukrainians.

However, the opposition has alleged that the government is little more than a stooge of Moscow, covertly opposed to Georgia’s Western path. They have dubbed the NGO law a “Russian law,” and President Salome Zourabichvili (a French-born former government ally who now sides with the opposition) has accused the government of "sabotaging our path (to Europe) and our future."

For its part, the Georgian government and many ordinary Georgians vividly remember the Georgian-Russian war of 2008, when a battle over the separatist territory of South Ossetia led to Georgia’s crushing defeat. It is also remembered that despite profuse statements of friendship, support and partnership, the U.S. refused to intervene to save Georgia. The government has therefore been determined to avoid being drawn into new conflict with Russia. Remembering this, opposition members do not actually call for Georgia to join the war against Russia, though they accuse the government of siding with the Kremlin. This appears to reflect the strong feelings of most ordinary Georgians, who are deeply opposed to a new conflict.

Georgia has not adopted most of the Western sanctions against Moscow, and as a result has greatly benefited from a surge in trade with Russia. Tbilisi has also sought to expand its economic options from its largely binary West-Russia format through increased trade and investment ties with Turkey, in addition to a newly-established strategic partnership with Beijing in 2023.

Meanwhile, like populist parties across Europe and North America, the Georgian government has also channeled the hostility of conservative sections of Georgian society to the EU’s cultural agenda, especially concerning LGBTQ issues.

In 2012, the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who led the original Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia coalition to victory and has remained the party’s financial backer and éminence grise ever since, declared that the party would “drop Cold War rhetoric” against Russia while doing a “better job of defusing the real causes of the explosive situation” in the region. Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s before transferring it to the West and Georgia, stressed Georgian Dream’s commitment “to becoming an integral part of European and Atlantic institutions,” but also emphasized the need to be “realistic about Georgia’s possibilities” and “abandon saber-rattling” against Russia. These objectives have characterized the party policy up until the present.

Not surprisingly, Western NGOs and governments have been strongly critical of the NGO law, which they see as “incompatible with Georgia’s European path” and evidence both of growing authoritarianism and of Moscow’s influence. In response, Georgian Dream has become strongly critical of Western interference in Georgia, which (rightly or wrongly) they now see as focused on supporting the Georgian opposition to overthrow the government through street power.

Ivanishvili has accused a “global party of war” of seeking to use Georgians as their “cannon fodder” by drawing them into a catastrophic new conflict with Moscow: “The financing of NGOs, which presents itself as help for us, is in reality for strengthening (foreign) intelligence agencies, and for bringing them to power.”

In these fraught circumstances, anyone who wishes to see Georgia prosper on the path to the EU should have an interest in reducing the tension. The West is correct to criticize the NGO law (though we should remember that most Americans would consider it absolutely intolerable if foreign institutions, especially ones linked to foreign states, played the leading part in funding de facto political groups within the U.S.).

However, Western governments and NGOs should be very careful not to allow condemnation of the law and sympathy for protests against it to become support for efforts actually aimed at overthrowing the elected Georgian government. Any such strategy would betray the West’s own commitment to democracy, and would tend to encourage any government around the world that faced Western criticism to adopt increasingly authoritarian means to suppress dissent.

Elections in Georgia are scheduled for October, and the West should of course do its utmost to ensure that they are free and fair.

We need to remember that Georgia is indeed in a precarious position, both in security terms and economically, and that it is only prudent to exercise caution in its approaches to Russia — which is near, while the EU and US are far. We should also remember that the only legitimate way to change an elected government is through elections, and we should try to ensure that a majority of Georgians have the chance to express their opinion — not ours — of their government in October.

Finally, in the generation after independence from the Soviet Union, Georgia was repeatedly racked by civil strife (in the 1990s, tipping over into civil war). This did not help Georgia’s European path — and will not do so if it is repeated in future.

Demonstration at Georgia's Parliament in Tbilisi on May 12, 2024, the night before the vote on a law on foreign influence. (Maxime Gruss / Hans Lucas via Reuters)

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