With democratic decline on display around the world, Georgia should be on our mind. 

Policy Recommendations 

  • The US and EU governments should insist that the Georgian government invite the European Commission for Democracy through Law (the Venice Commission) to evaluate the controversial Foreign Agent Law that Tbilisi recently reintroduced. The United States and the EU should also insist that the Georgian Parliament not hold a vote on the law until the Venice Commission has issued its findings. 
  • The US Department of State should convey that if the ruling party rushes the law through without waiting for feedback from the Venice Commission, or in contravention of the Commission’s conclusions, it will consider sanctions against individual members of Parliament (MPs) who vote for it. 
  • The EU should signal that if the law is passed without the Venice Commission’s approval, it will suspend implementation of Georgia’s EU membership invitation.

Nearly a year ago, pro-democracy groups in Georgia celebrated the government’s “unconditional” withdrawal of a proposed “foreign agent” law aimed at severely restricting civil society organizations that receive foreign funding. The ruling Georgian Dream party has sought to tighten control over media, elections, and civil society groups, all of which it sees as threats to its continued rule. The law, modeled on a notorious Russian law that Moscow uses to target civil society, provoked unprecedented protests in Tbilisi and forceful condemnations from the United States and EU. Many in Georgia recognized a second threat beyond the repressive terms of the law itself: It seemed certain to undermine Georgia’s bid for EU membership. Just as former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision not to sign the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement provoked the Euromaidan protests that brought down his government in 2014, Georgian Dream leaders may have feared that by provoking a similarly open rift with the EU, they might face a similar fate at the hands of their own citizens, and so they backed down and withdrew the proposed law last May. 

But earlier this month the government reintroduced the law, and now seems to be moving to quickly pass it before public opposition can be mobilized. With a formal invitation of candidacy for EU membership now in hand, the government may now feel that public anxiety about jeopardizing EU candidacy may be lower, since Brussels will be reluctant to officially revoke the invitation, and that Tbilisi can force through the same law with less outcry. If true, this will make international pressure even more important than last time. 

Why do Georgians call it “the Russian Law”? 

Under the Foreign Agent Law, as it is officially known, civil society organizations (CSOs) would have to register as foreign agents if they receive more than 20% of annual funding from sources outside of Georgia, which would define them as “under the control, order or request of a person directly or indirectly … controlled or financed by a foreign power.” As with the Kremlin’s narrative about civil society, this cynical elision of “funding” and “control” presupposes that editorial independence, academic integrity, and non-partisan civic participation are naive myths. The law exactly matches the March 2023 iteration, other than one semantic alteration which would require groups to register as organizations “pursuing the interests of a foreign power” instead of “agents of foreign influence”.  

While those proposing the law have characterized such restrictions as a necessary step in ensuring transparency, Georgian CSOs already face stringent regulations requiring them to disclose their funders. Instead, the law will subject Georgian civic actors to criminal liability, expose personal data, and allow the government to undermine public trust in civil society. While they have also claimed that it mirrors the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), it much more closely resembles the Russian Foreign Agents Law of 2012, which the Kremlin uses to silence dissidents and crush civil society—leading many in Georgia to refer to it simply as “the Russian law”. The US Congress adopted their law to target organizations working on behalf of Nazi Germany to launder and distribute its propaganda in the United States. Georgian Dream has only explicitly referred to the United States and EU as the funders of foreign agents in Georgia, and has never mentioned Russia, despite Russia’s ongoing occupation of Georgian territory and sustained interference in Georgian democracy, including through covert financing. In this Orwellian inversion of Georgia’s friends and foes, the EU and NATO are cast in the role of the Nazis if Georgian Dream’s FARA comparison is to be believed. Further, in the Soviet Union, the term “foreign agent” described those engaged in espionage, so in a post-Soviet society like Georgia the clear intent is to evoke feelings of paranoia and skepticism toward Georgian civic actors and dissidents.  

The revived law has several troubling implications. Importantly, it hints at Georgian Dream’s telos of a closer partnership with Russia, despite saying it seeks both EU and NATO accession for Georgia, as Article 78 of the Georgian constitution requires. Further, this law could silence voices who are crucial to Georgian democratic progress: CSOs have played a pivotal role in shaping democracy, notably during the 2003 Rose Revolution. Georgian CSOs today have a pivotal role in election observation, so attacking them undermines one of the bulwarks of Georgian election integrity. 

In the course of defending their reintroduction of the law, Georgian Dream officials have admitted that their ambitions go well beyond ensuring simple transparency. Georgian Dream Majority Leader Mamuka Mdinaradze explained, “Publicity and transparency are not the special purpose of the law. The point is to ensure them, in addition to the good deeds that NGO representatives are doing in the country, to ensure them and prevent various problems. Prevention of such problems in Georgia may be associated, for example, with polarization, radicalization, religious extremism, weakening of state institutions, promotion of an unconventional lifestyle, and financing of radical revolutionary goals of parties.” That is, the law will be a tool that the incumbent party can use to “ensure” that CSOs are not engaged in disapproved activities, which are broadly defined enough as to include “promotion of an unconventional lifestyle.” 

MP Mdinaradze gave the game away further when he continued, “We have seen [foreign funding used for illegitimate purposes] many times. For example, Franklin Club, Canvas, and ISFED falsify data from parallel vote counting. External players financed all of them.” This is an open admission that the government plans to target the very organizations that work to ensure that Georgian elections are free and fair. 

How was the law stopped last year? 

Within weeks of the bill’s first introduction in March 2023, protests by Georgians and international outrage compelled Georgian Dream to overturn it. Georgian CSOs rallied citizens in the street, overcoming the general lack of trust in and enthusiasm for civil society (80% of respondents in a USAID study said that CSO engagement is limited or non-existent) by appealing to widespread anti-Russian sentiment. Six hundred Georgian and international NGOs signed a joint statement likening the law to the one passed in Russia. Thousands of people protested for days on end, shocking Georgian Dream, who had always referred to adversaries of the law as radical. More than 130 people were arrested, and police attacked protestors with water cannons and tear gas. Eventually, the reputational costs for Georgian Dream became too great, and lawmakers in parliament voted against the bill 35-1 just a few days after protests began.  

Further, foreign governments had swiftly condemned the law. The EU Head of Foreign Policy Josep Borrell warned that the law would hinder Georgia’s relations with the EU. The President of the European Council Charles Michel said that the adoption of the law is “not compatible with the EU path which [the] majority in [Georgia] wants.” In the past, Georgian Dream has been comfortable ignoring most normative pressure from the West, including concerning the ongoing imprisonment of former President Mikheil Saakashvili. But when it came to the Russian law, foreign pressure was stronger because it added fuel to the pressure channel that the government really fears: popular outrage in the streets of Georgia.  

What can the United States and EU do to arrest Georgia’s slide towards authoritarianism? 

Unlike many countries facing democratic decline, Georgia has a population that is strongly supportive of democracy and of engagement and integration with the EU and NATO. This gives the United States and EU greater leverage over the Georgian government to affect change, because signs that the ruling party is setting back future relations with the West motivate Georgians to stand up for their rights. EU officials have issued strong statements condemning the resurrection of the law, and these statements should be followed up with clear reminders that the EU Association Agreement means that the EU will have higher rather than lower expectations for Georgia’s adherence to democratic norms. 

One approach would be to insist that the Georgian Parliament only advance the legislation after the draft law has received a favorable opinion by the Venice Commission. If the Georgian government remains committed to EU accession as it maintains publicly, it should have no credible objection to ensuring that a newly proposed legal regime is consistent with EU values and principles. 

The United States, for its part, should insist on this, and should back up words with actions. Last year, the US Department of State sanctioned four Georgian judges facing overwhelming and substantiated allegations of corruption. This has, by many accounts, had the intended effect: other Georgian judges—fearing sanction by the United States—have been more cautious about engaging in overt acts of corruption on behalf of the ruling party. 

This week, the State Department should make an announcement urging the Georgian government to immediately invite the Venice Commission to evaluate the draft law (which will take a couple of months), advising the Georgian Parliament that they should not rush the foreign agents law through before the Venice Commission has had a chance to evaluate it, and subtly warning MPs that if they vote in favor of the law before the Venice Commission opines on it (or against the recommendation of a Venice Commission opinion), then sanctions against MPs will be on the table. This more deliberative process would hopefully give the commission time to do its job and give Georgians the opportunity to voice their feelings on a law that could shape the future of their democracy—and its geo-political orientation—for decades to come. 

It is essential that the State Department act quickly because the Georgian government has already referred the law to committee and could attempt to rush it to a vote as soon as this week. Ultimately, the fate of this law must be decided by the Georgian people, not by Russia, the EU, or the United States. But American and European officials can further emphasize the divergent paths that Georgia faces today, and it would be a moral and strategic mistake not to. Georgians themselves will have a further opportunity decide which path their country will take when they turn out for elections later this year—a prospect that may very well be motivating the government’s latest attack on organizations that ensure the integrity of Georgian elections. 

The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.