Georgia has faced mounting international calls to backtrack on plans to adopt a "foreign influence agents" bill, with warnings coming from partners that such laws would undermine existing cooperation and the country's Western integration efforts.
Georgia's ruling party said it would back the bill that would force foreign-funded non-governmental organizations, media outlets, and possibly even individuals to register as "foreign influence agents." Now key international partners, including the European Union and United Nations, have spoken out against the bill, pointing to major risks to the country's democracy.
The bill "would risk impeding the work of civil society and media and the essential contributions they make to Georgian democracy," the mission of the United Nations in Georgia said on February 26. The mission warned that the law, if adopted, could impede the implementation of projects under the Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework strategy that the UN agreed with the Georgian government.
The UN also echoed worries that the law would disrupt vital services that various civil society organizations have been providing to vulnerable groups.
"Stigmatizing their work risks leaving persons with disabilities, internally displaced, minorities, older persons, women, youth and children, survivors of domestic violence and other people in need without effective assistance and support," the mission said.
In February, People's Power, a group allied with the ruling Georgian Dream party and consisting of former ruling party MPs, put forward the bill on "transparency of foreign influence." If it becomes law, it will force Georgia's many foreign-funded non-governmental entities and media outlets to register as "foreign influence agents" and declare their revenues, or face substantial fines.
The bill has since received widespread criticism from home and abroad as many fear it follows in the footsteps of undemocratic countries such as Russia, where such laws have been used to silence critical voices. Despite initial hopes to the contrary, the ruling party embraced the bill and said it would vote in favor.
And aside from concerns about such laws leading to a crackdown on free speech and disruption of services, one immediate worry is that it would strike a final blow to Georgia's hopes of attaining European Union candidate status.
In October, the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, will be assessing the progress Georgia made on 12 reform priorities that Brussels asked Tbilisi to address as a condition for getting candidate status. And now Brussels' sharp criticism of the bill has confirmed fears that its passage would stand in the way of the country's EU prospects.
"Creating and maintaining an enabling environment for civil society organizations and ensuring media freedom is at the core of democracy," the EU spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy said in a statement on February 24. "It is also key to the EU accession process and part of the 12 priorities, notably priority 7 on media freedom and priority 10 on the involvement of civil society."
Yet it is the United States where People's Power claims to have got its inspiration for the bill, despite the repeated denial by the State Department that the bill is analogous to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
In recent days, following the backlash, the group went on to draft another, alternative bill on foreign influence agents that it claims more closely copies FARA. But it only introduces stricter provisions and more tools to target critics and likely serves the purpose of making the initial bill look mild by comparison.
A version of the second bill obtained by Netgazeti expands the list of foreign influence agents to individuals and apparently a wider spectrum of legal entities, while the failure of public disclosure foresees fines and now also imprisonment for up to five years.
On Monday, Georgian Dream leaders said they would be passing both bills in the first hearing, and then ask the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe, for an expedited assessment of both. The final decision on which of these bills is to pass will be taken based on those assessments, the party claims.
This initially gave critics some hope that the party might eventually abandon its plans on repressive laws, particularly amid the critical assessment the Venice Commission had sent to Russia on a series of similar bills introduced in that country in 2020.
According to that assessment, the Russian bills constituted "serious violations of basic human rights, including the freedoms of association and expression, the right to privacy, the right to participate in public affairs, as well as the prohibition of discrimination." The Venice Commission also said that "at a minimum, the stigmatizing and misleading 'foreign agent' label should be abandoned in favor of a more neutral and accurate designation."
But hope is a dangerous thing in Georgia, where the ruling party has been becoming more and more uncompromising in recent years. And this time, too, Georgian Dream hinted they may not take a potentially critical Venice Commission assessment into account.
"I have an expectation that arguments will be offered [by the Venice Commission] that will be taken into account in some cases. But if they paint white as black, we will also note this and make our decision accordingly," Mamuka Mdinaradze, Georgian Dream's parliamentary faction head, told reporters on February 27.
Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili pledged to veto the bill, which may protract the adoption process, but not stop it as the veto can be easily overridden by the parliamentary majority.
While the party and its allies are in the process of deciding, resistance has been growing in Georgia among the bill's likely targets.
Social media has been full of "spot the difference" reels showing Georgian Dream chair Irakli Kobakhidze and other party leaders parroting the arguments of Russian President Vladimir Putin to defend the bill.
Concerns have also emerged that the crackdown will not be limited to a small number of non-governmental organizations that the party has vilified as "rich NGOs," but rather will be used anywhere the government sees threats to its rule, including grassroots protests and labor movements.
And on February 27, more than 60 media outlets issued a joint statement vowing not to register as foreign influence agents once the law is adopted.
"We serve the public and are worried about the future of our country," the outlets say. "If the Russian law is adopted, we will refuse to register as 'foreign influence agents.' It insults our professional dignity."
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.