Georgia’s Parliament Gives Final Approval to ‘Foreign Agents’ Measure

The Parliament of Georgia gave final approval on Tuesday to a contentious bill that has prompted a series of tense protests in the capital, Tbilisi, spurred by fears that the legislation could push the country back into the Kremlin’s orbit.

President Salome Zourabichvili has promised to veto the bill. But Georgian Dream, the governing party in Georgia since 2012, has enough votes to override her veto.

Both the opposition and the government have presented the passage of the innocuous-sounding bill, titled “On Transparency of Foreign Influence,” as a momentous step in the history of Georgia, a mountainous country of 3.6 million saddled in the middle of the Caucasus Mountains.

The draft law would require nongovernmental groups and media outlets that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from foreign sources to register as “organizations carrying the interests of foreign power” and provide annual financial statements about their activities. Georgia’s justice ministry would be given broad powers to monitor compliance. Violations would incur fines equivalent to more than $9,300.

Government officials and lawmakers from the ruling party said that the draft law would strengthen the country’s sovereignty by making nongovernmental organizations, which have occupied a central role in Georgia’s highly polarized political life, more transparent to the public.

But the vocal pro-Western opposition has denounced the legislation as a stealthy effort to convert Georgia into a pro-Russian state.

American officials have made no secret that the bill could rupture Georgia’s relationship with the West.

Speaking on Tuesday at a news briefing in Tbilisi, James O’Brien, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, said the U.S. could impose sanctions if the bill is passed into law in its current form.

“If the law goes forward out of conformity with E.U. norms and there is undermining of democracy here and there is violence against peaceful protesters then we will see restrictions coming from the United States,” Mr. O’Brien in televised remarks. “Those tend to be financial and travel restrictions on the individuals responsible for those actions and their families.”

Mr. O’Brien, who came to Georgia to discuss the situation, said that Irakli Kobakhidze, Georgia’s prime minister, indicated during their meeting that the law could still be modified. He also said that the U.S. could review about $390 million of assistance it intended to spend in Georgia “if we are now regarded as an adversary and not a partner.”

Over the past month, thousands of people have been protesting the bill in Tbilisi and other cities across Georgia. As the crowds swelled, the police began to use heavy-handed tactics to disperse them.

Riot police officers used tear gas, pepper spray and fists against protesters when some of them surrounded the Parliament building. Some protesters have been beaten in tense confrontations, including Ted Jonas, an American Georgian lawyer who has been living in the country since the early 1990s.

“They dragged me about 30 meters on the sidewalk, beating and kicking me the whole way,” Mr. Jonas said in a post on Facebook. “I ended up with a bloody nose, bruises from kicking or fists on my head, jaw, right eye socket and somewhat on the left.”

On Tuesday, thousands of protesters came to the Soviet-era Parliament building on the main Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi. After the lawmakers passed the law, some protesters tried to break into the building’s courtyard, but were quickly pushed away by masked police officers. The crowd kept shouting “Russians” to officers and “No to the Russian law!” The police said in a statement that 13 protesters were arrested on Tuesday. At night, thousands marched through central Tbilisi and blocked a major intersection that links various parts of town.

Protesters labeled the bill a “Russian law,” arguing that it mimics a similar measure in Russia. Passed in 2012, the Russian “foreign agents” law was also portrayed by the Russian government as a transparency measure, but it quickly developed into a heavy-handed tool to stifle and stigmatize anti-Kremlin advocacy groups and media organizations.

“We have so many pro-Western N.G.O.s and they are against the West, they are pro-Russian,” said Luna Iakobadze, 26, a protester, referring to the government.

The government of Georgia has been denying accusations that the bill has anything to do with Moscow. Government representatives insisted they were committed to pursuing the country’s widely popular aspiration to join the European Union.

But in a recent speech, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the Georgian Dream party, presented the West as an enemy, not a friend. Speaking at a pro-government rally at the end of April, Mr. Ivanishvili said that NATO and the European Union were controlled by a “global war party” which sees “Georgia and Ukraine as cannon fodder.”

“They first had Georgia enter a confrontation with Russia in 2008,” said Mr. Ivanishvili, referring to a brief war fought between Moscow and the government in Tbilisi. “In 2014 and 2022 they put Ukraine into an even more difficult situation.”

Mr. Ivanishvili, a reclusive oligarch who made a fortune in Russia before returning to Georgia in the early 2000s, accused Western elites of trying to foment a revolution against his party because it refused to actively oppose the Kremlin following its invasion of Ukraine.

But some protesters said Moscow was the natural center of gravity for Mr. Ivanishvili and his party, which has ruled Georgia for almost 12 years and intends to strengthen its grip over the country’s politics at the upcoming elections in October.

“This is their only way to stay in power, to be with Russia,” said Ilia Burduli, 39, a lawyer, at one of the rallies. “This is the only way to be in charge forever.”

Mr. Kobakhidze, Georgia’s recently appointed prime minister, depicted activists who oppose the bill as arrogant and clueless people who were brainwashed to believe that the bill was tied to Russia.

“A self-confident person without knowledge and intelligence is worse than a Russian tank,” Mr. Kobakhidze said on Friday in a post on Facebook.

Some commentators have echoed the government’s reasoning, saying that the Western-financed nongovernmental organization sector makes an outsize impact on Georgia’s political life despite not being democratically elected. But they also said that the new law would not address that problem.

On Tuesday, the Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov appeared to support the government’s push to adopt the bill. Speaking with reporters, he said that it constitutes “the firm desire of the Georgian leadership to protect its country against overt interference in its internal affairs,” according to Tass, a state news agency in Russia.

European Union representatives have said that it renews questions about Georgia’s democratic record.

Over the past few years, the West has been walking a tightrope in Georgia: on the one hand, it tried to encourage the popular pro-Western aspirations of the Georgian people, on the other, it tried hard not to alienate the governing party and push it into the Kremlin’s hands. In December, the European Union granted Georgia candidate status, a move widely seen as an effort to prevent the country from sliding into the Kremlin’s orbit.

But the balancing act has grown only more difficult since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, which pushed many former Soviet states to pick a side. The invasion also presented Georgia and some other countries with a lucrative opportunity to help conduct trade between Russia and the West that has become restricted because of sanctions and other measures.

“The Georgian Dream thinks that the focus of attention for the West is elsewhere, their focus on Georgia has weakened, so the price they would have to pay for adopting this law might not be too high,” said Mikheil Kechaqmadze, an analyst of Georgian politics.

“They don’t want to do European integration,” he said in an interview. “By introducing the law they want to subvert it.”

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