Kill bill: How Georgia ended up with its ‘foreign agent’ debacle13 min read

 In Analysis, Caucasus, Politics

If one had been closely following the mood in the Georgian ruling party’s camp over the past couple of years, it would not come as a great surprise when last November the parliamentary fraction People’s Power announced plans to initiate a new bill on the financing of NGOs in Georgia, which later became formally known as the “On the Transparency of Foreign Influence” bill, or more commonly as the “foreign agent” draft bill.

To understand how it all came about, it is important to look at what produced the environment in which such a draft bill was put forward. Two key elements provide the red thread in this story: (1) this debacle should not be analysed in a legalistic way but in a manner that takes into account how laws are used in the politicised context of Georgian elite politics; and (2) the context in which this development unfolded can be traced back to frictions exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine and Georgian Dream’s (GD) untenable attempt at geopolitical balancing acts.

In June 2022, when the People’s Power party was created, its founding members were open about their plans and intentions, and harboured no ambition to serve as opposition to the rule of GD. The longer-term goal may have been to win the votes of socially conservative demographics going into the 2024 parliamentary elections, but the shorter-term function was to “speak more freely” in response to criticism coming from Western institutions. Such outspoken and public criticism was already visible in the run up to Georgia’s application for EU candidacy, but particularly strong right after the Georgian government’s failed attempt to obtain EU candidacy. Previously, the Prime Minister himself promised to “unveil the curtain” if the decision was “unfair”— meaning that any negative outcome would be met with a like response. When the decision was indeed negative, nothing was unveiled per se, but criticism of the West, Western institutions, and specific Western officials followed from ruling party quarters.

War abroad deepens polarisation at home

One way or another, GD’s rule has always been marked by the use of polarising “Us versus Them” rhetoric. Previously, and for the better part of their 10-year rule, the opposing side were the ‘Natsis’ (a derogatory term for Saakashvili’s United National Movement). They still are the biggest irritant in town for GD, but with the war in Ukraine and a bigger stage opening up for Georgia in a larger geopolitical context, the governing party found itself in opposition to more significant figures both inside and outside of the country: first and foremost the Ukrainian government, but also some influential Members of the European Parliament, as well as other political figures to whom GD now conveniently refers to as the collective West.

Messages coming from those quarters were often sloppy, without taking into consideration Georgia’s domestic politics and the country’s own history with Russian aggression. At the start of the war, some Ukrainian officials suggested that it was time for Georgia to seize the moment and try its luck in restoring its own territorial integrity. The tensions caused by the invasion in general, and such statements in particular, provided arguments for GD to position itself as the ‘prudent’ defender of national interests and gave reasons for neutrally minded Georgians to at least recognise GD’s position.

In addition, vis-à-vis Ukraine, GD has had its own grudges, which pre-date the Zelenskyy administration. Some of these misgivings have been understandable. For example, the appointment of former president Mikheil Saakashvili first by President Poroshenko as the governor of Odesa and then years later by President Zelenskyy as chair of the executive committee of the Ukrainian National Reforms Council was not welcomed by the ruling party of Georgia. Given that Saakashvili was a wanted fugitive at the time, Georgia even summoned its ambassador from Kyiv, and between May 2020 and October 2021, the country was represented only by an acting ambassador. In both of those instances, Saakashvili was able to bring along some of his countrymen, including the wanted ex-Prosecutor General of Georgia  Zurab Adeishvili, as well as lesser-known civil servants and law enforcement officers from Georgia. This made intergovernmental and inter-ministerial cooperation tense and awkward, and it was harder for the government of Georgia to see an ally in Kyiv. But by 2022, the world had changed and GD failed to catch up with the new reality created by Russia’s all-out invasion.

GD has been caught between managing its balancing act with respect to Russia and at the same time keeping its eyes on a highly polarised internal political struggle. The ruling party interpreted calls coming from Ukrainian officials not as genuine calls for help to counter Russia from modest Georgia, but rather as repeated attempts to tip the scale in favour of the opposition. GD politicians have never been skilled at explaining their positions, even more so internationally. The bilateral relationship between countries deteriorated to the point where Ukraine at first chose to recall their ambassador from Tbilisi and later dismiss him.

With all eyes on Ukraine, there was little space for the Georgian government’s positions to be explained in a nuanced manner, even if the Georgian government’s responses – both reactionary and awkwardly undiplomatic – must be seen in a context of domestic political struggles rather than simplistic geopolitics alone, as Kakachia and Lebanidze have also argued. These moves have often come at the wrong time, causing the ruling party to further ‘dig’ itself into its position. The public nature of these geopolitically ill-timed responses, in particular, has raised eyebrows among Western diplomats.

In the summer of 2022, Ukraine was making a successful comeback in the war and had secured itself EU candidate status, along with Association Trio underdog Moldova, while Georgia was given the consolation prize of a ‘European perspective’ and heavy homework in the form of 12 policy recommendations. These recommendations originally had to be fulfilled by December 2022, but the date has since been moved forward a year.

Socio-political contestation over Georgia’s EU membership application

Prior to the June 2022 EU decision, Georgia’s civil society organisations (CSOs) gave the country’s bid a final push and mobilised a large rally in the capital’s main thoroughfare, Rustaveli Avenue. Most protesters already sensed that at that point the decision was unlikely to go Georgia’s way. And it did not. After the decision, several prominent CSOs and public figures, together with a number of opposition parties, decided to capitalise on the popular movement and hold the government accountable for its failure to make the most of this window of opportunity. While the unpopular opposition and its leaders endorsed the protest, they did not take an active role, and civil society took the centre stage. The biggest of Georgia’s CSOs organised it, led it, and championed it. Already on 24 June, at a pre-scheduled rally, the freshly created public movement “Home – to Europe” called for Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili to resign and demanded the creation of an interim technical government of national unity to help the country fulfil its recommendations and receive the EU candidate status.

Needless to say, the demands were not met, and the pressure died down. But it was at this moment that GD took aim at the CSOs. Parliament speaker Papuashvili at the time criticised CSOs for “violating” their neutrality by joining in the “polarising” demands for an interim government. “It is unfortunate that several [CSOs] are directly involved in politics, without being registered as a political organisation.” The idea of a lack of credibility and impartiality among watchdog organisations was gaining traction on pro-governmental channels and among government-affiliated pundits. CSOs were labelled as wings of opposition parties, and slowly but surely, ideas about the necessity of legislation began to be mentioned too. In their minds, the idea was gaining momentum and with elections still 18 months away, GD and its proxy party People’s Power thought it was the time to strike, and acted swiftly by introducing the bill.

Attempts to mobilise ‘transparency’ against ‘elite’ NGOs

As for the “Foreign Influence” bill, it has been criticised from left, right and centre – most notably and loudly during the popular protests on 7-9 March. Even analysts who are concerned about the disconnect between Georgian NGOs and broader parts of society and those who recognise long-standing problems with the nature of certain donor-driven practices considered this law mistimed, damaging for the country’s European aspirations, and – most importantly – proposed in bad faith.

Naturally, comparisons with Russia’s analogue of the proposed law followed. Despite GD’s best efforts to liken it to the US’s Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), the parallels with Russia’s ‘foreign agent’ law were written all over. For one, any legislative comparison with FARA made little sense. FARA only covers individuals or entities representing foreign interests, such as lobbyists. Such phenomena practically do not exist in Georgia, meaning that a word-for-word copy of FARA would by its nature accomplish very little in effect. In reference to the absence of a substantial debate around Georgia’s potential “foreign agent” legislation, some commentators have correctly pointed out Russia was neither the only nor the first country with similar legislation. However, the comparison to the Russian version was also made because of GD’s dubious and ambiguous geopolitical positioning in the current context, and has served as part of a tactic to raise awareness about the harm this law could bring.

It is also common knowledge that there is a lack of trust in institutions and courts across Georgian society, and a widespread practice of selective enforcement of existing laws. The Georgian version of the bill was clearly not intended to genuinely diversify, localise, or strengthen grassroots NGOs. Instead, the bill was already intended to be stricter than the initial 2012 version adopted in Moscow, which served as the first step in what we all understand now is a near-total destruction of civil society in Russia.

Interestingly, once the Georgian bill was withdrawn from parliament during the second reading, both Canada and the European Union launched processes to initiate similar legislation with the purpose of countering malign influences from abroad. Such examples will continue to be used as an instrument of further polarisation on the part of GD-affiliated pundits. In both cases, however, the context was very different, because the targets and recipients of the ‘foreign agent’ treatment would be declared (authoritarian) adversaries of the West, China and Russia, whereas in Georgia it would focus squarely on critics of the ruling party who, despite some of their flaws, help to keep the government in check and advance the reform agenda to which the government itself has committed.

Of course, despite all this, valid arguments in favour of transparency over foreign influence and foreign funding (including via CSOs/NGOs) do exist — but this law was never about that. There already is more transparency to foreign funding than the government would have you believe. If existing legislation was found to be insufficient and GD truly wanted to achieve greater transparency, its parliamentarians could have tweaked existing laws and thus achieved what they announced to be the desired outcome. For instance, they could have added more articles to the existing law on grants.

In fact, it seems GD does not have a problem with all actors that receive funding from abroad. In a country like Georgia, where the government is unable to cater to all the needs of society, the government itself is benefiting vastly from the NGO sector’s aid organisations – be it in law-making, advisory, welfare, or consultancy services. Many of the MPs, including those that voted for the bill or abstained, have benefited from foreign money and advanced their careers through foreign-funded programs. The state itself, too, is a beneficiary of foreign grants in practically all areas; hence, the share that falls on Georgian CSOs is less than 2%.

GD is aware of this and has no intention of stopping the flow of money (if given the choice); all the ruling party wants, for now, is to label some of the biggest irritants and tighten control in the future. Who they have an issue with are those who take active political positions, have strong ties with political parties, or are funded by former politicians waiting for a chance to make a comeback. Prime Minister Gharibashvili recently called these actors “elite NGOs.” Issues of polarised politicisation and biases in the NGO sector may indeed be a legitimate concern in Georgia, shared by parts of the population and often overlooked by foreign observers, partners, and donors. Yet, GD overestimated the population’s willingness to support its response to this long-term thorny issue in the form of a wholesale, bad-faith crackdown.

What’s next for CSO–government relations in Georgia?

Now that the bill did not pass, is this the end of the story? What helped to kill the bill was in somewhat equal parts the pressure from international organisations and diplomats using uncharacteristically blunt language in opposition to the law, as well as the demonstrations that brought an even greater focus on the country. GD once again overestimated its powers and felt forced to walk back in quite a spectacular manner.

In the past ten years of GD rule, there have been a few episodes during which GD has had to walk back on its initial stance (in some cases, resignations and public apologies from high-ranking officials followed). This case, however, was more serious, and the debacle could provide momentum to the opposition if GD does not tread carefully. Some of its relationships abroad may now be beyond repair, at least with the current cabinet. Even domestically, some heads have been turned away for good, not by the bill itself as much as the direct harm done to the process of European integration. This applies not only to supporters but also members of the party. Many have viewed this episode as self-sabotage. Some MPs have already announced their departure; rumours circulate that more will follow.

Having said that, there may be a tiny, cynical element of gain for GD. A decade into the rule and counting, with its popularity taking hits, GD is likely to stick to polarisation as a political strategy and will resort to labelling and targeting opponents even without any particular legislation in place. As the chairman of the ruling party Kobakhidze said: “This draft law has fulfilled its tasks: everyone admitted that being an agent is shameful, everyone learned about the organisations that are involved in non-state activities…” Because the failure to pass this law has also angered many conservatives, it could help mobilise more support for natural allies People’s Power or the Conservative Movement, or even for GD itself.

This, of course, is a very dangerous game, as all polls suggest the electorate is very much eclectic and volatile, with over half of the respondents unable to name a preferred party. How this will play out at the voting booths is hard to foresee, even with the traditional advantage any ruling party in Georgia gets when organising elections. Divisive rhetoric could also lead (and has led in the past) to violence, and may amplify hateful views that people may otherwise have hidden. This, of course, would damage Georgia’s reputation and its investment climate, thus impacting GD members’ long-term (oligarchic) business interests, too.

Will GD find other creative ways to zoom in aggressively on the organisations it has an issue with? In his face-saving press conference after making the commitment to vote down the controversial bill, Parliament speaker Papuashvili said: “non-governmental organisations should take the initiative themselves, define what the standard of transparency and accountability is and offer it to the public.” Will the ruling party have the courage to bring up even the most reasonable ideas on transparency forward? Will the suffered reputational damage allow the GD leadership to revive the topic? This seems doubtful. It is more likely that the ruling party will not be able to return to this until after the elections, if at all. But the relationship between GD and CSOs may have suffered irreparable damage.

Feature Image: Canva
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