Friday, June 21, 2024
 
 

Georgia’s “Foreign Representatives Law” moves forward amid protests

EU makes it clear that the adoption of this law will negatively impact Georgia’s progress on the EU path

US Mission to the OSCE
EU and Georgian national flags

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On May 14, Georgia’s parliament approved (84/150) a hotly contested law on “Transparency of Foreign Interests” regulating the amount of aid local civil society organizations may accept from abroad, frequently referred to as the “Foreign Representatives/Foreign Agents Law” and even more cynically the “The Russian Law.”

The law is very similar to the Russian-inspired legislation signed by Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov on April 2 generating much controversy in Kyrgyzstan and with foreign assistance donors.

Protests shut down much of the country’s capital Tbilisi on May 14 and are expected to continue as the law is processed.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze recently stated that the government’s plans for implementing this law were “solely aimed at promoting transparency and accountability.”

The Georgian government has staunchly defended the law, calling it similar to the U.S. 1938 pre-WW2 Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA — a comparison U.S. officials reject.

Next stop for the law was the desk of Georgia’s President Salome Zourabichvili who had repeatedly promised to veto the law, which she did on May 18th.

It was widely believed that the governing Georgian Dream party would be able to muster sufficient votes to override the President’s veto (via simple majority) and therefore convert the legislation into Georgian law; this reportedly happened on May 28. The new law will come into effect in several months due to procedural requirements.

The Georgian Dream-led government is believed to be controlled by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire who amassed his wealth in 1990s Moscow and has since skillfully appointed loyalists to key government positions. The government is now in its third term.

EU path in jeopardy

Georgia was only recently awarded formal EU candidate status in December 2023. EU leaders were quick to warn Tbilisi that enactment of the new law will immediately freeze the accession process.

“The adoption of this law negatively impacts Georgia’s progress on the EU path,” EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell and Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi said in a statement. “The choice on the way forward is in Georgia’s hands. We urge the Georgian authorities to withdraw the law,” they added.

“The EU has clearly and repeatedly stated that the spirit and content of the law are not in line with EU core norms and values,” Borrell and Varhelyi concluded.

Warnings from Washington

Visiting senior U.S. officials, in Tbilisi on May 14 the same time that Secretary Antony Blinken arrived in Kyiv on a surprise visit, issued numerous critical statements about the legislation, as the U.S. State Department in Washington has repeatedly done, but to no avail. During the visit, Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Jim O’Brien warned interlocutors that the U.S. could impose “travel restrictions and financial sanctions against individuals involved and their families” if the new law is not brought in compliance with Western standards and there was violence against peaceful protesters (see below). At the same time, there is growing pressure in both Houses of the U.S. Congress to consider the use of sanctions, as needed, to prevent the law from coming into force in its current form.

On May 16th, the U.S. Representative delivered the following statement to the OSCE Permanent Council session in Vienna:

Georgia’s Law on Foreign Agents

“The United States has long stood by the people of Georgia and supported Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic future, one which the vast majority of Georgians clearly and vocally desire. Through the years, we have forged a bond built on our shared commitments to democracy and Georgia’s sovereignty.

That is why we are deeply troubled by the Kremlin-style “foreign agents” law passed by Georgia’s parliament on May 14.

The United States wants Georgia to flourish and continue in its path toward the European Union and NATO. Our foreign assistance to Georgia – which we have provided for more than three decades – supports regional integration, innovation, and increasing economic opportunities for the Georgian people in the wake of Russia’s land grab in 2008.

This law and Georgian Dream’s anti-democratic rhetoric are taking Georgia down a perilous path. As in every democracy, civil society serves an indispensable role as a critical check on government. Laws like these, designed to stifle any form of dissent, are the antithesis of the shared commitments to democracy and human rights that form the bedrock of this Organization.

We underscore that the use of force to suppress peaceful assembly and freedom of expression is unacceptable and we call for accountability for violence against peaceful protesters and journalists. Additionally, meeting the international law obligations to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, and expression, is fundamental to democracy and democratic governance; these rights and freedoms must be respected.

The United States stands with the people of Georgia in their exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms and in their desire for a European future. The United States has supported the democratic will and aspirations of the Georgian people for 32 years, and we will continue to do so.”

New visa restrictions on Georgia announced 

Delivering on earlier U.S. warnings, on May 23 the U.S. State Department announced a new visa restriction policy that will apply to “individuals who are responsible for or complicit in undermining democracy in Georgia” as well as their families.  The denial of visas to family members of violators was mentioned several times, likely indicating Washington already has specific families in mind.

Although precise visa denial criteria were not listed, Washington’s warning was issued clearly: “Anyone who undermines democratic processes or institutions in Georgia — including in the lead-up to, during, and following Georgia’s October 2024 elections — may be found ineligible for U.S. visas under this policy and precluded from travel to the United States.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken also announced he was launching a comprehensive review of bilateral cooperation between the United States and Georgia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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