The Memo: EU dream scuppered as 'foreign agents' law passed in Georgia

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EU dream scuppered as 'foreign agents' law passed in Georgia

James Westmacott - 8 July 2024

Lying deep in the ancient foothills of the Caucasus lies Georgia, a nation of almost four million people nestled between the historic powers of Russia and Turkey to the north and south, with complex stories with its neighbours Armenia and Azerbaijan also shadowing its recent past. As a result of its unique, transcontinental location, the political identity of the former Soviet republic has, since 1991, been unclear. Having long existed within Russia’s perceived sphere of influence, Georgia has veered westwards in recent times, reneging its Russian-influenced biography for greater ties with the political values of the European continent. In no way has this been better encapsulated by the country’s desire to enter the European Union, where renewed optimism over such a course exploded following the bloc’s granting of official candidate status to Georgia in December 2023.  

However, following the passing of the so-called foreign agents’ law by the Georgian parliamentwhich states that any organisation receiving more than 20% of its funding from abroad must now be declared as acting under the agency of foreign influencethe nation’s EU dream may have just been shattered. Whilst the new law impacts the potential for closer ties with Europe due to the future inability for European funding to be funnelled into Georgian media and pro-EU organisations, it also aligns the nation much more closely with Russia, who also implemented such a law to quell dissent and crackdown on political opposition. This paints a bleak picture of the situation, as critics argue it lurches the regime further towards a degree of authoritarianism and a more Russian-esque political course. The breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia within what is internationally recognised as Georgia have enjoyed continued support from the Kremlin, which instigated a diplomatic crisis and subsequent Georgian defeat to Russian forces in a five-day conflict back in 2008.  

The move comes after vast amounts of money have been pumped into NGOs in the country in recent times, with the government now seeking greater transparency of the sources. But even though that may seem like a sensible move, many argue this has been coupled with the incumbent regime’s desire to relinquish any traces of foreign political meddling and influence ahead of October’s elections, in which the Georgian Dream Party seeks to lead another term. The law has resulted in nationwide oppositionwith protestors symbolically draped in combination Georgian and EU flags, while also causing huge internal rifts within the state’s politics. For instance, President Salome Zourabichvili has publicly elucidated his opposition to the proposal, but his initial veto was subsequently superseded by the nation’s legislative parliamentary chamber. The contentious law has left many reeling at the future direction of Georgian politics, and it is expected that the case will end up at the European Court of Human Rights due to harsh penalties for potential breaches of the law. 

But what does the law say about overseas influence in organisations in the UK? Well, The Foreign Influence Registration Scheme was set up to protect British politics from what is described as covert foreign influence. The scheme stipulates that any organisation from abroad looking to carry out a form of political influence must register their arrangements and activities in the UK at the behest of a foreign power. However, no activity is prohibited under the scheme, with registration of details a mere requirement before arrangements and their activities can continue. The UK government states that this is to ensure full openness and transparency when it comes to overseas influence. Whilst most countries will expectedly have such arrangements in place to ensure effective protection of domestic political processes, the lesson from the Georgian case stresses the importance of governments finding the fine line between rigorous tightening of foreign influence and limiting crackdown on opposition parties and national citizens.