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Why Georgia Should Be on Your Mind

May 20, 2024

A new "Law on Transparency of Foreign Influence" ("Georgia Foreign Agent Law") is set to go into effect in the nation of Georgia on June 16, 2024. Without an unlikely last-minute reversal, this oppressive law will perpetuate the decline of democracy and human rights that is occurring around the world and particularly in the former states of the Soviet Union.

The Georgia Foreign Agent Law is highly controversial, and thousands of Georgians have turned out in protest. It is the creation of the Georgian Dream Party ("GDP"), which currently dominates the national government. When the law was first proposed in Parliament in 2023, massive public protests brought about the withdrawal of the legislation. The bill was re-introduced in March of 2024 and passed the Parliament in May. It was vetoed by the non-GDP President of the country, but Parliament overruled her veto.

The Georgia Foreign Agent Law requires that any media or non-governmental organizations which obtain more than 20% their funding from sources outside the country must register with the government that they are "pursuing the interests of a foreign power" and must give full disclosure of their financing. Refusal or failure to register may result in significant fines for each month of non-registration. Human rights defenders in Georgia have made plain that they are already being harassed as so-called "foreign agents." Such harassment is consistent with the experience in other countries where such oppressive foreign agent laws have been adopted, particularly Russia, whose law has basically caused the closure or exile of most in-country human rights organizations and other civil society groups. Among the likely targets of the Georgia legislation are two prominent, European-funded organizations (Transparency International Georgia and ISFED) that expose government corruption and abuse. The United States, the United Nations and numerous European countries have spoken out against the Georgia Law. The democratic backsliding it represents could stand as an obstacle to Georgia's pending application to join the European Union, which may well be part of the law's intent.

Georgian human rights defenders rightly see this as a fight for the soul of their nation, related to fights occurring on many fronts around the world. They deserve our support.

Since Putin's Russia adopted its Foreign Agent Law, other countries led by governments of populist and/or totalitarian bent have proposed or adopted such laws, including Hungary, India, and Turkey. The laws vary in terms, but they are similar in that they conflate the desire of public or private foreign actors to promote liberal values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law with nefarious threats to national sovereignty. They wrongly assume that receipt of funding, sometimes in small amounts, makes an organization the agent of the funder's home nation. Their terms are usually defined only vaguely, creating much room for mischief and oppression in their application.

The Georgia Foreign Agent Law arises from an important historical and geo-political context. Like Ukraine, Georgia borders Russia and their histories have been closely intertwined. In 2008, in a forecast of events in Ukraine, Russia invaded Georgia. It still occupies about 20% of the country and is accordingly distrusted by a large proportion of the Georgian population. Nevertheless, actions of the ruling GDP, such as the Georgia Foreign Agent Law, are moving the country closer to Putin and away from Europe. The GDP's founder and chief funder, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, made his fortune in Russia and consistently demonstrates alignment with Russian interests. He has claimed that Georgian NGOs are servants of Western governments that want to foment revolution and force Georgia to adopt foreign values. The GDP has supported other attacks on human rights: it has proposed, for example, a constitutional amendment to ban gender transition, same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex parents. Society is in considerable turbulence over the fundamental question of whether Georgia will tip toward Europe or toward Putin's Russia. Fistfights have broken out on the floor of Parliament. Thousands of protestors of the Georgia Law have taken to the streets, where they have been met with violent repression by the government.

Georgian human rights defenders rightly see this as a fight for the soul of their nation, related to fights occurring on many fronts around the world. They deserve our support. The Advocates condemns the adoption of Georgia's Law on Transparency of Foreign Influence and urges its immediate withdrawal.

By Jim O'Neal, board member and the Board Chair Emeritus of the Advocates for Human Rights.