A group of MPs aligned with Georgia's ruling party is presenting a bill that would compel internationally funded entities to register as foreign agents, a move seen as undercutting the country's efforts to become an EU member candidate.
People's Power, a group of MPs that formally split from the ruling Georgian Dream party last year and began spreading anti-Western conspiracy theories, announced on February 14 that it was officially submitting its earlier-announced foreign agents' bill.
The announcement drew widespread backlash as many believe the draft legislation aims to curb dissent and strike a final blow to Georgia's EU hopes.
The Georgian government's "actions against media, weakening of the rule of law and now the bill on foreign agents are viewed critically in Brussels and by the EU member countries as they ultimately undermine the key components of the European integration," Stefan Meister, a regional expert at German Council on Foreign Relations, a Berlin-based think tank, told the Georgian Institute of Politics (GIP).
On February 15, GIP, a prominent think tank, published comments by local and international experts who overwhelmingly agreed that the bill would divert Georgia from its European path.
Georgia has been told it will receive EU membership candidate status if it makes sufficient progress on 12 reform priorities laid out by the European Commission, the EU's executive arm. The Commission will report on Georgia's progress this October, and then the EU's 27 member states must unanimously make a final decision on its candidacy.
While the country recently received a positive EU assessment on its alignment with the EU's common laws, there are concerns about various democratic challenges threatening Georgia's EU prospects. The foreign agent law is poised to become one of the biggest obstacles yet on that path.
According to a legislative draft obtained by RFE/RL's Georgian service, non-profit entities as well as outlets that rely on a "foreign force" for more than 20 percent of funding will have to register as "agents of foreign influence." The notion of a "foreign force" can include foreign government bodies, foreign nationals, or other foreign-based entities, as well as organizations established under foreign or international law.
Those registering as "foreign influence agents" must also declare their funding sources, and a failure to register or declare income may lead to fines of up to 25,000 Georgian Lari (about $9,500).
The bill's authors have claimed they are copying the best Western practices on transparency, including "American" laws. But critics have pointed at precedents where less democratic countries cite Western laws, including the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), to curb local dissent. For Georgians, the most notorious example is that of Russia, where similar laws approved a decade ago led to an escalating crackdown on critical voices.
"These statements that the Georgian draft law is based on FARA – these statements are patently false," U.S. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said in a February 15 press briefing, expressing "deep concerns" about the bill that he said "would stigmatize and silence independent voices and citizens of Georgia."
According to Price, the bill "appears to be based on similar Russian and Hungarian legislation, not on FARA or any other American legislation."
In Georgia, too, many see the bill in the context of the ruling party's attacks on media and non-governmental actors and worry that damage will be done whether or not the bill becomes law.
The bill will undercut the European Commission recommendation that “foresees involving civil society organizations in the decision-making process," Vano Chkhikvadze, who works on EU integration at the Open Society - Georgia Foundation, told GIP.
While hope remains that the ruling party will ultimately refrain from voting for the legislation, initial statements by Georgian Dream MPs expressing approval of the bill and touting a need for transparency suggest it has a good chance of passing.
People's Power, while formally having split from the ruling party, remains in the Georgian Dream-led parliamentary majority. Since its formation last summer, the group has advanced conspiracy theories about the West trying to drag Georgia into the war with Russia. One of the chief villains in their narrative is Kelly Degnan, the U.S. ambassador to Georgia, whom they accuse of secretly meeting Georgian Dream’s billionaire founder Bidzina Ivanishvili to blackmail him.
Ivanishvili, widely regarded as Georgia's informal leader despite his formal retirement from politics, then broke his long silence to confirm Degnan had indeed met with him, adding to suspicions that the group was acting on his behalf.
And the group has been particularly focused in that context on financial hurdles experienced by Ivanishvili with the Swiss bank Credit Suisse, implying it was part of that conspiracy.
Now the foreign agents' bill, initially announced in December, has resurfaced, alongside renewed complaints from Ivanishvili's legal team about his banking problems. The lawyers have claimed that amid the Ukraine war, Credit Suisse has been creating excuses to prevent Ivanishvili from accessing his assets, and alleged that "political blackmail" is behind this.
One of those "excuses" allegedly included the bank citing a June 9 resolution of the EU Parliament calling on the EU to consider sanctioning Ivanishvili. (The EU Parliament reiterated that call in its February 15 resolution on the worsening health of Georgia's jailed ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, calling on Tbilisi to release Saakashvili and on Brussels to consider sanctioning Ivanishvili for his role in "the deterioration of the political process in Georgia.")
And citing the recent claims by Ivanishvili's legal team that leading Western media outlets had refused to publish their articles criticizing Credit Suisse management, People's Power went so far as to question the entire idea of European integration.
"If for the Georgian people EU membership means giving up media freedom, the rule of law, economic stability, and traditional values and installing an agentocracy devoid of values, such membership, naturally, has no value for our people," the group said in a February 10 letter dedicated to the "unprecedented and coordinated media censorship" experienced by Ivanishvili "all across Europe."
Similar Euroskeptical claims were repeated in another letter, dated February 15, which again referred to Ivanishvili's banking and media struggles.
Bidzina Ivanishvili “is an enemy of agentocracy, and his [bank] account and articles, naturally, are blocked for this reason."
Ivanishvili so far has not come under any official sanctions. On February 16, Bloomberg cited Credit Suisse as saying that the bank had paid Ivanishvili $210 million over time as part of a lengthy legal dispute over an earlier infamous fraud case that affected the Georgian billionaire. It is, however, unclear to what extent this has solved Ivanishvili's banking problems, or to what extent it will solve the political problems of his country.
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.