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With a Controversial New Law, Georgia Invites Bids From Russia and the EU

By adopting the law on foreign agents, the ruling Georgian Dream party is inviting Russia and the West to compete for Tbilisi’s favor.

Published on June 5, 2024

The Georgian government’s adoption of a highly controversial “foreign agents” law may seem reckless, given that it has prompted major protests at home and condemnation in the West. Moreover, the Georgian Dream ruling party has pushed it through in an election year: on October 26, the country will elect a new parliament.

If the party is voted out in October, after twelve years in power, the opposition will not fail to take revenge. Georgian Dream’s honorary chairman and the country’s de facto leader, the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, can fully expect to repeat the fate of former president Mikheil Saakashvili, who is now behind bars. However counterintuitive, therefore, it seems that the adoption of the foreign agents law simply reflects a new approach by Georgian Dream to maintaining its grip on power.

The divisive new law, which closely resembles an equally contentious Russian law and requires NGOs that get more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to submit annual reports or face financial penalties, was passed in two short months. The Georgian authorities announced their second bid (following an aborted attempt last year) to pass a law “on the transparency of foreign influence” in early April. By the end of May, it had been approved in three readings, and on May 28, the veto imposed by President Salome Zurabishvili was overridden by parliament (unsurprisingly, given Georgian Dream’s majority there).

All of those stages were accompanied by mass public outrage on the streets, but unlike last time, the government did not blink, and the police crackdown on the protests was brutal. Nor was there any sign of division among the elites. The country’s leadership demonstrated complete control over the situation.

It was also a clear signal to the outside world that no one can tell Georgia what to do, and that its sovereignty is an unconditional value. Georgian leaders and politicians from Georgian Dream repeatedly surprised observers in recent months with their sharp responses to criticism of the law by the EU and the United States. Ivanishvili accused the “global war party” in the West of wanting to drag Georgia into an open conflict with Russia, while Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze rebuked Western forces and their agents inside the country for seeking to “open a second front and Ukrainianize Georgia.”

Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze, who is also secretary general of Georgian Dream, went as far as to say that Georgia and the United States are now “not partners or friends, but ... enemies, as it turns out.” The comments were made in response to U.S. threats to impose visa restrictions on Georgian officials involved in the adoption of the law, and are a radical departure from the 2000s, when a Tbilisi street was named after then U.S. President George W. Bush. A country whose constitution lists Euro-Atlantic integration as a strategic goal—an amendment introduced in 2017 by none other than Georgian Dream—has entered into an unprecedented confrontation with the EU and the United States.

So far, however, there have been no real consequences for the Georgian authorities. For all the threatening statements by high-ranking officials in Brussels and Washington, they remain just that.

There are several practical reasons for the lack of action. Firstly, organizations can only be punished under the new law—i.e., for failing to submit data on foreign funding to the Justice Ministry—from next year, meaning there is no solid reason to sanction the authorities until that happens.

Secondly, if the Georgian leadership is sanctioned now and then Georgian Dream goes on to win October’s elections (which is very likely), the EU and the United States will have to keep dealing with them, which could be awkward. It’s most likely, therefore, that the West will wait for the results of the vote and then decide what to do.

Thirdly, the optics of introducing Western sanctions against politicians whose declared aim is to join the EU are not good. Worse still, such sanctions could push Tbilisi to improve relations with Moscow, which has praised Georgia’s foreign agent law, having passed a similar law itself back in 2012. With Georgian Dream having been branded by their opponents as a pro-Russian force for many years now, the party might decide it has nothing to lose by embracing that reputation.

By adopting the law on foreign agents, Georgian Dream is inviting Russia and the West to compete for Tbilisi’s favor. The party’s chairman, former prime minister Irakli Garibashvili, has openly named the condition for repealing the contentious law: “If they tell us that tomorrow we will become members of the European Union, then it will be very easy to repeal it, review it, revise it, or adopt a new one.” What is that, if not an invitation to bargain?

It has long been established practice for Russia and the West to present small countries with a choice: either you are with us, in which case you get a particular set of perks from us, or you are not with us, in which case don’t expect anything good. This time, the Georgian authorities have taken the initiative by offering their own binary choice.

Now the ball is in the EU’s court. The Georgian leadership is directly saying that if the European Union wants to keep Georgia in its orbit, then instead of feeding it promises and sending more lists of demands, it should just go ahead and make the country a member.

In case no such reciprocal steps are taken, Georgia has another dream: the reintegration of its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. On May 26—Georgian Independence Day—Prime Minister Kobakhidze said: “The Georgian dream for the fortieth anniversary of the restoration of Georgia’s independence is to live in a united and strong Georgia in 2030 together with our Abkhaz and Ossetian brothers and sisters. A united and strong Georgia must become a full member of the European family in 2030.”

Making the first part of that dream a reality would require deeper interaction not with the West, but with Russia, which effectively sponsors the two breakaway regions and has influence over them. At least as many Georgians would like to see the return of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as would like to see their country join the EU: both have the support of an absolute majority. Moreover, polls show that if they have to choose just one thing, more than three quarters of Georgians would choose the return of Abkhazia and South Ossetia over joining the EU and NATO.

Tbilisi has already proven that it has the courage to disobey the EU and the United States. Now it is Moscow’s turn to take the initiative. Even if Russia simply facilitates the start of the reintegration process, that may be more important for Georgian Dream’s popularity than a setback in the process of European integration.