Mass protests against the adoption of a "foreign agent" law, which stipulates that media and organisations that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad must disclose their income, are gaining momentum in Georgia. In March 2023, protests against a similar bill ultimately led to its withdrawal. What to make of the current developments - not least in light of Georgia's recently acquired EU candidate status?

Decide between East or West

Postimees sees the country at a crossroads:

“In December Georgia was granted EU accession candidate status, which requires compliance with certain values. These values certainly do not include brutally dispersing peaceful demonstrators using tear gas and rubber truncheons. Georgia should be aware that Russia currently views the EU as a hostile community, which means that Georgia's status as a candidate country is viewed with hostility in Moscow. If Georgia really wants to join, it must free itself from undemocratic values, orient itself clearly towards the West and work seriously on reforming the country.”

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Against the opposition and Europe

The general direction is clear, La Stampa laments:

“At a rally, oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili - former prime minister and true power behind the ruling party - called for the 'final judgement' on the opposition, which he accuses of being 'foreign agents' of the 'global war party EU-Nato' who are 'preparing the revolution' in the run-up to the October elections. ... Never before has the intention to bring Tbilisi back under the wing of Moscow, which grabbed a fifth of the country's territory in 2008, been formulated more clearly. ... This signal was also heard in Brussels. The European Parliament discussed imposing sanctions on Ivanishvili and suspending the accession process for Tbilisi. ... But that would only pave the way for Ivanishvili.”

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The moves follow Georgia’s adoption of a Russian-style “foreign influence” law which critics say is meant to stifle dissent against the government.

Brussels must not turn away

The EU must not overreact, La Croix warns:

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“The Europeans face a balancing act. The adoption of such a law can only prompt them to postpone the start of accession negotiations indefinitely. ... But seeing thousands of demonstrators waving European flags in front of parliament to the strains of the Ode to Joy despite tear gas and water cannons cannot leave the member states unmoved. So slamming the door is not an option. Despite the risks and despite the pressure from Moscow, the Europeans, who are the country's biggest donors, must continue to support the pro-democracy ambitions. Especially in the run-up to the Georgian parliamentary elections scheduled for October.”

A risk for the government

The Western orientation of Georgian society could slow down the government, hvg contends:

“The displeasure of the West and the ongoing opposition protests could force the government to back down again. After all, EU and Nato membership are very popular among Georgians - polls show that 80 percent of the population support Euro-Atlantic integration. So a worsening of the dispute between Brussels and Tbilisi could end up reducing the number of supporters of the ruling coalition.”

The pendulum of history could swing back

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Ukraine should also learn a lesson from the latest developments in Georgia, writes political scientist Maksym Yali on Facebook:

“The events in Georgia show that even after military aggression it's possible to relapse into the past, with forces coming to power that are, to put it mildly, neutral towards Russia. And they come to power quite legally, by the way. Okay, during Russia's military invasion [in Georgia] there weren't as many victims or as much destruction as in Ukraine. But it is still possible that the pendulum of history will swing back. Even though this seemed impossible in 2008. The Kremlin is hoping the same thing will happen in Ukraine.”

Moscow using same tactics as in Moldova

Russia continues to meddle in its former sphere of influence, political scientist Denis Cenusa observes on Contributors:

“In both Georgia and Moldova, Russia is trying to weaken the EU's position and (re)gain strategic advantages by exploiting the mistakes made by the governments in their endeavours to remain in power. ... For example, the introduction of legal mechanisms to obstruct civil society in Georgia, or the disproportionate reactions of the government in Chișinău against socially disadvantaged groups recruited by pro-Russian forces for political intrigues may poison the European agenda. The disunity in these countries serves Russian interests and could further complicate the EU's eastward enlargement.”

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Russia as a deterrent

In a post on Facebook, Russian opposition politician Elvira Vikhareva explains why the bill is so controversial:

“The ruling party Georgian Dream wants NGOs and media that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as 'organisations representing foreign interests'. That's the official wording. ... It seems like a small thing, doesn't it? But we remember very well what such a small thing led to in our country. The Georgians look across the border and understand everything. And of course there are hardly any media or NGOs in Georgia without this 20 percent. The country is very poor, it lives only on being open to the world and foreign funding, especially in the tertiary sector.”

The people will have their say in the autumn

Georgia has only been a candidate for EU membership since December, the Süddeutsche Zeitung points out:

“But instead of moving closer, it is already moving further away. ... Tens of thousands are protesting because they see the proposed law as a threat to the country's European course. ... The words of the most powerful man in the country also give the people good reason to be sceptical. Bidzina Ivanishvili, billionaire, former prime minister and leader of the ruling party, has now launched a massive attack on the West. He claims the West wants to use Georgia, like Ukraine, as cannon fodder in the fight against Russia. This is completely untrue. Instead such words reinforce the impression of an increasingly authoritarian leadership that is unsure about pursuing the path towards the EU. It has the say. However, the Georgian people will also have their say in the parliamentary elections in the autumn.”

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Even willing to jeopardise EU ties

The Georgian Dream party which has ruled the country for many years is under pressure now, observes Ukrainska Pravda:

“The most common explanation is that the law, which makes control over the public sector and independent media possible, is being used to secure victory in the parliamentary elections on 26 October. For the first time, these elections will be held without the single-mandate constituencies in which the ruling party has always won. That is why it will be more difficult for Georgian Dream to win this time round. ... Retaining power (it should be remembered that Georgian Dream has been in power for almost 12 years) is the party's key objective. And it is prepared to sacrifice even its ties to the EU to achieve this.”

It sounded harmless at first

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Exiled TV-Rain journalist Ekaterina Kotrikadze warns on Facebook:

“Thanks to the Russian experience, people in Georgia understand very well where a 'law on foreign agents' leads and what it is needed for. Let me briefly recapitulate: The Russian state had promised us, too, that nothing terrible would happen, that the law would merely ensure 'transparency' and not prevent anyone from working or living in Russia. ... There is not a single major independent media outlet or international human rights organisation left in Russia today. That was the aim of the Russian authorities when they claimed that the law on foreign agents was just a trifling matter.”

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