Home / Europe / Georgia’s Foreign Agents Law Crisis

Georgia’s Foreign Agents Law Crisis

11 June, 2024

by Oleksandra Zadesenets, Research Assistant

On 28 May, Georgia’s parliament voted to override the pro-Western President’s veto of the “Foreign Agents” legislation which is claimed to be a significant hindrance to Georgian EU integration, ensuring its passage into law. The implementation of this law by the increasingly pro-Russian Georgian Dream party which dominates the country’s parliament is viewed as a dramatic setback, distancing Georgia from its population’s European aspirations. It exemplifies the fragility of post-Soviet democratic consolidation, revealing the challenges posed by a patronal political framework, weak institutionalism and exposure to the external illiberal influence, making it difficult to align domestic policies with EU conditionality requirements.

However, the massive protests against this law played a double role in this post-soviet Georgian dilemma. Human rights violations as the governmental antidote to the upheavals underlined the lack of genuine democratisation of the post-soviet space, causing Georgia to be viewed more as a competitive authoritarian regime. The Guardian reported that riot police, equipped with water cannons and teargas, were accused of assaulting protesters who were picketing outside Georgia’s parliament in an attempt to block the final vote on a contentious “foreign influence” law.

It also emphasised that the extent of openness to the international democratic powers is strictly controlled by the elites in power, rather than being a logical and smooth continuation of the earlier adopted political course toward EU accession. As a rule, the elites have constrained the level of democratic transition and external reforms to those that do not infringe upon the legitimacy of their power. Once this level is reached and the system awaits a more advanced transition, this process culminates with the cutting off of some political freedoms. In order to achieve transition, reformation ‘from above’ is necessary, requiring greater governmental transparency and accountability, including the introduction of anti-corruption procedures. Since such change can jeopardise the place of current elites in power, they have no choice but to launch the mechanism of democratic reversal by implementing authoritarian tactics to sustain their control.

Yet, despite the oxymoronic nature of the following statement, the explicit manifestation of governmental violence to the legitimate expression of civic freedoms gives Georgia a chance for genuine democratisation. The domestic social and political climate, along with international reactions, made it evident that the protests were likely to achieve their purpose, thereby increasing the chances of a change in government.

The meaning of the law ‘On Foreign Agents’

The Georgian law ‘On Foreign Agents’ is claimed to be the embodiment of the Russian version of the same law adopted in 2012. It is designed to target the regime non-conformists under the veil of transparency. In the Russian context, this law is regarded as one encroaching upon human rights, as it demands the labelling of those bound by any kind of foreign support and influence, restricting their civil and political freedoms. It aggravates the post-Cold War tensions, antagonising Western powers and assigning mistrust to the citizens accused of having a linkage to them. This law portrays the West as a threat to national security, necessitating facilitated control over civil society and distinguishing so-called ‘foreign agents’.

While this law did not change the Russian political course and simply became evidence of unchanged Russian reluctance to pursue democratic principles and greater cooperation with the West, the implementation of this law is lethal for Georgian democratisation. The Georgian political course in the era of independence demonstrated a decisive popular inclination to European integration, especially after the Russian invasion in 2008. Georgia has set up a chain of transformations towards becoming an EU member. For example, this aspiration was underpinned by the signature of the Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU in 2014. In addition, Georgia has put an effort into the enforcement of the various reforms aimed at the alignment with the EU legislation and standards in the realms of governance, rule of law and economic policies. However, according to the Freedom House report, Georgia’s democracy rating has dropped over the last decade, constituting 34/100 in 2024 compared to 39/100 in 2015, when the reforms stepping forward to accession were active.

It can be stated that the law ‘On Foreign Agents’ writes off almost the entire path Georgia has gone through to be regarded as an aspiring EU member since it hints at hostility to this institution. Such stigmatisation becomes a substantial obstacle to any further attempt at the EU conditionality fulfilment. The implementation of this law disables unhindered foreign support and its receipt, hampering the work of independent media and constraining access to alternative information. US Secretary of State Blinken pointed out that these policies contradict Georgia’s long-declared objective, enshrined in its constitution, of a strategic partnership with the US and Euro-Atlantic integration.

This factor places the EU and Georgia at a crossroads and leaves room for the entrenchment of authoritarianism, underlining the lingering impact of totalitarian legacies. Given the high popular support for EU integration, there is a strong suspicion that the leading party Georgian Dream is prioritising sustaining itself in power at all costs, acting against the interests of the nation and imposing a “Russian” style of governance.

Why does the adoption of the law ‘On Foreign Agents’ give Georgia a chance for a new government?

The essence of patronal politics in the post-soviet political landscape is that the power is concentrated in the hands of a limited number of people. Hence, the evolution of the political processes, the openness to democratisation and the choice of strategic international partners are strongly influenced by the incumbents and the resources they possess, mobilising the society around the values they promote.

Thus, as the nature of the former Soviet republic shows, once the protests have been ignited and the governmental brutality has occurred, the impact on the government’s ability to retain power becomes apparent. Due to the presence of elections in these states, the elites are rotating   embracing different political courses and relying on different geopolitical partners, yet not altering the organisational framework of government.

Henry Hale, political scientist and professor at George Washington University, in his work  “Patronal Politics” (2014) asserted that the protests are the natural products of the patronal systems, with voting in isolation having little impact on the institutional structure of the state. The outbreak of mass protests signifies the anticipation of elite turnover. Georgia experienced such an event in 2003. Before the Rose Revolution, the government considered a closer partnership with Russia, but the revolutionary events deteriorated these relations. Back then, the new government demonstrated a commitment to democracy, concentrating on the rebuilding of the Georgian state and the embracement of the integration to the West, diverging from the interests of Moscow.

There are a lot of intricacies in modern Georgian politics, as well as a strong competition pool between contrasting powers, ideologies and values. Additionally, there is a split of values in the leading party Georgian Dream, where the majority advocates for devotion to Russia, which has led to the elimination and imprisonment of former pro-Western leaders. The imprisonment of Saakashvili serves as a striking example of the flaws and personalisation of this system, where legislation is instrumentalised to suppress political opponents despite substantial popular support. At the same time, another part of the Georgian Dream favours greater expansion of the ties with the West. This division within the Georgian political landscape is paralleled by civil society’s more decisive inclination towards a Euro-Atlantic orientation, resisting pro-Russian policies and mobilising their own powers to counter Russian aggression.

This radical political polarisation has at least helped Georgia to avoid repeating the destiny of Belarus. The 2020 protests in Belarus and the governmental violence which crushed them did not lead to the change of government because the elites of this state were solely predisposed to the illiberal Russian influence. A pro-Western leader has never been in power in Belarus and European oriented course has never been considered, which allowed a limited exposure of the population to these values. The political alternative in the face of Tsikhanouskaya cannot be deemed sufficient. The authoritarian apparatus of Belarus limits the channels for the population to consider different political scenarios, isolating people in one endless autocratic ideology. The situation in Georgia is different, as the presence of democratic elements allowed for the change of power and values, endowing the pro-Western leaders with a continued place in power.

Hence, the likely eventual outcome of the protests amid the introduction of the ‘Law on Foreign Agents’ becomes evident. According to scholar Hale, in such a patronal system, the regime dynamics are mostly influenced by expectations. If the protests are expected to succeed, they will do so. It occurs because there are alternative powers in the state to embrace the interests of the protesters. Elite actors aspire to align with the massive moods and values to maintain their privileges. Accordingly, they unite with other political actors, both international and domestic, who share the same values, resulting in the strengthening of this system. It is highly relevant in the Georgian case because the democratic powers are expected to ally to jointly resist authoritarian tendencies. In contrast, the weakness of the Belarusian party system did not allow the consolidation of democratic powers, expecting the 2020-2021 protests to result in a totalitarian dilemma.

In Georgia, there are three pillars of expectation for these protests to win and for the government to be swapped, represented by the unhesitant backing of civil society, domestic political support and international assistance. First, the support of the population for these protests is colossal. The recent Georgian protests had two phases, with the greater resistance in the second wave despite the violence from the police. Second, the president of Georgia Salome Zurabashvili, renowned for the Euro-Atlantic orientation, vetoed the law ‘On Foreign Agents’. It emphasises that the dissent to the current government manifestly starts from the head of state, indicating the possibility of considerable political alliance and mobilisation around this resistance. Third, the United States stated that the bilateral cooperation with Georgia is being reconsidered. Blinken asserted that the US is implementing visa restrictions for individuals deemed to be undermining democracy in Georgia. In “Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War” (2011) political scientists  Levitsky and Way  wrote about the fall of Shevardnadze’s power, underlining that the events of 2003 set up the driving force for political change. Shevardnadze heavily relied on US support, but the US no longer saw his political survival as viable in Georgia and the call for a new election was imminent, leading to the decision to withdraw this support, resulting in the new government. This historical example may have relevance nowadays.

Ultimately, all of these factors create a solid ground for the expectation that protests will fulfil their democratising purpose.  The governmental change, accompanied by the removal of illiberal elements and the limitation of foreign influence that hinders national interests, presents a significant opportunity for institutional rebuilding, thereby promoting genuine democratisation in the long term.

As the country approaches parliamentary elections in 24 October 2024, these events can become the determinants shaping political behaviour and strategies. What is more, these events are pivotal for the future of Georgia’s democratic path. The intensity of public upheavals signified the heightened political participation, leading to the increased social mobilisation during the elections. This discontent can be transferred to the voter turnout with the subsequent swift response to the electoral outcome. Should any attempt at electoral fraud occur, the escalation of protests seems inevitable, potentially resulting in substantial political instability. These elections provide an opportunity for the emergence of new political forces and leaders, who can embrace public sentiment and form coalitions with European-oriented parties in parliament. Altogether, these factors can contribute to the democratisation of Georgia within Euro-Atlantic framework. Hence, the protests in Georgia can be regarded as the catalyst for potential political change.

Image: Protests in Tbilisi (Source: DerFuchs via CC BY-SA 4.0)

About Oleksandra Zadesenets

Oleksandra Zadesenets is an undergraduate student at the University of Glasgow, where she is pursuing a degree in International Relations. During her recent internship with the School for Policy Analysis at NaUKMA, she co-authored an analytical article on the socio-cultural aspects of the transformational processes in Ukrainian society following the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, which was presented at a scientific conference. Oleksandra's research interests cover a broad range of issues that shape international landscape. She is particularly drawn to the constructivist theory of international relations, and her area of research interest encompasses democratic transformations in post-Soviet countries, competitive authoritarian regimes, post-Cold War international affairs, closed autocracies, nationalist and dissident movements, human rights and human security, R2P, cultural diplomacy, war making and peace making.