At the crossroads between Europe and Russia stands a divided Georgia

Visit of SalomŽ Zourabichvili, President of Georgia, to the EC
Flags of Georgia and the EU. Photo:Jennifer Jacquemart/European Union, 2019. Source: EC - Audiovisual Service

“Do we want a European future or Russian slavery?”, asks Salome Zourabichvili, President of Georgia, into the protesting crowd after vetoing a Parliament’s decision on May 28th.

In March 2023 Georgia withdrew two bills – one on “Transparency of Foreign Influence” and the other on “Registration of Foreign Agents” after mass protests took place in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. A bit over a year later, the governing party, Georgian Dream, reintroduced the same text unchanged. This “new” law targets non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) as well as media outlets (with minor exclusions) by qualifying some of them as “organizations pursuing the interests of foreign powers”.

In the seven-page document, the mysterious term “foreign power“ is repeated around fifty times. Supposedly this term includes constituent entities of a foreign country’s state system, a non-Georgian citizen or a legal entity not established under the legislation of Georgia such as organisations based on another country’s law or international law.  The law suggests that if an entity has more than 20% of its funding coming from abroad, it will be listed as a foreign agent. The consequence is a registration at the Ministry of Justice, unmanageable paperwork and a fine of around 25,000 GEL (8,300 euro) in case of non-compliance.

Around 10.000 NGOs will be impacted,  ranging from local theaters to childhood cancer or anti-discrimination organizations. “Especially for women’s civil society organizations (CSOs), grassroots organizations, and CSOs based outside the capital” this will be a dangerous change. Major part of their financing is coming from international donors or foreign governments, such as Germany, Sweden, the US and the EU itself. Because of the lack of national funding and resources some of the organizations receive 95% of their funds from foreign sources.

What is behind the law?

For the conservative government, ruled by Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidz, this law aims to “limit the LGBT propaganda spread by Western-backed NGOs as well as anti-stability, revolutionary movements”. While the law was welcomed by Russian leaders, many international leaders as well as opposition Georgian figures raised their voice against it.

President Salome Zourabichvili refused to sign the “Russian Law”, which would be against all European standards. However, her veto was overruled by a simple majority in the national Parliament on the 28th of May. Consequently, she encouraged citizens to take it to the streets.

Earlier, on April 15th, thousands of Georgians demonstrated in front of the Georgian Parliament. Ever since there have been around thirty-five thousand protesters on the streets every day. From April 15th to May 15th, around 360 people were arrested according to the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association.

“The government is at war against people,” said Lacha Tkecheladze, a lawyer, in an interview with the French journal Le Monde. On the night of April 30th to May 1st, the state police attacked Levan Khabeishvili, the UNM (United National Movement) Chairman of the opposition party. He was severely injured, and beaten up by officers for 10-15 minutes. The next day, he addressed the Parliament, with a broken nose and bruises all over his face. “What you see on my body is [an image] of Russia, […] unfortunately, many children have woken up like this,” Khabeishvili said.

The main argument against the law is that it is inspired by a 2012 Russian law, implying Russian influence over the national government, as Russia already did in Kyrgyzstan. As such, there is a fear that this is just the first step towards a more authoritarian state in the shadows of Russia. Experts such as Egor Kouroptev, a member of the NGO Free Russia Foundation, explains that the Georgian government did not even have any reason to do that, especially before the October elections

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Vladimir Putin attends a meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in Yerevan, Armenia. Photo: Asatur Yesayants /

Since the full-scale invasion of Russia on Ukraine, the Georgian government was reluctant to impose sanctions and acted cautiously around Moscow, following a so-called policy of “non-irritation”. One reason might be the background of the party founder, oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili. Born in Georgia, he made a fortune in the collapsed USSR gaining many contacts with officials. Before returning to Tbilisi and creating the political party he is said to have sold his shares in Russia.

However, Transparency International revealed his offshore companies, such as Geo Organics, through which his brother and cousin were cooperating with a former KGB general and a St-Petersburg politician who is close to Putin and is now facing US sanctions. Additional reasons include historical complexities, and that until today, around 20% of Georgian territory is occupied by Russia after the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.

Swift and strong responses

The international response was swift. From the Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement to the European Union External Action (EEAS) and the European Parliament, Georgia has received strong warnings and expressions of concern.

Thus, the European Parliament stated: “The EU has stressed repeatedly that the law adopted by the Georgian Parliament goes against EU core principles and values. Its enactment leads to backsliding on at least three of the nine steps set out in the Commission’s recommendation for candidate status endorsed by EU leaders and will negatively impact Georgia’s EU path.”

The stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights and minorities are part of the EU enlargement conditions. Media outlets and NGOs are essential for a working democracy and civil society

People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones

Simultaneously, questions are being raised about the EU’s credibility on that matter. After the first Georgian attempt and as a response to the scandalous Qatargate, the European Commission adopted the “Defence of Democracy package” with the objective of tracking NGOs and lobbying groups funding, especially from third-country entities. In 2023, 200 NGOs such as Transparency International and the European Partnership for Democracy, warned that this law mirrors those fought by the EU and accused the EU of hypocrisy, weakening European civil society and undermining its foreign credibility.

“By treating organisations with suspicion just because they receive funding that is “foreign”, the EU is setting a precedent that will be welcomed by authoritarian leaders around the world.” said Alexandrina Najmowicz, Secretary General of the European Civic Forum. Also, Christian Moos, EESC Rapporteur highlighted: “We consider this directive to be dangerous. It resembles the ‘foreign agents’ law. It is potentially stigmatizing NGOs. Clearly, the current proposal should be withdrawn. It risks adding to the problem of shrinking civic spaces in Europe, and that is something the Commission couldn’t possibly want”.

80% of Georgia’s three million inhabitants are pro-European. On June 3rd, the government turned its back further away from its accession to the EU towards bellicose Russia and authoritarianism. From here on the situation is bleak: Either the EU gives up on Georgia and it walks into Russia’s hands, or it accepts its damaged credibility, leaving space for leaders with authoritarian incentives to stifle liberties which are essential for a healthy democracy.

Georgia, which has been historically oftentimes torn between Europe and Russia, needs to decide once again what it wants. A European future or being close to Russia? Citizens will get to vote next October.

The authors of this analysis are Alexandre Pottez and Avital Grinberg.

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