Georgia’s Ruling Party Secures a Contentious Law on Foreign Influence

Published: May 28, 2024

Georgia’s Parliament overrode a presidential veto to give final approval on Tuesday evening to a contentious bill that has plunged the country into a political crisis and threatened to derail the pro-Western aspirations of many Georgians in favor of closer ties with Russia.

The law will require nongovernmental groups and media organizations that receive at least 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as organizations “pursuing the interests of a foreign power.” The country’s justice ministry will be given broad powers to monitor compliance. Violations could result in fines equivalent to more than $9,000.

The passage of the bill is likely to represent a pivotal moment for Georgia, which has been one of the most pro-Western states to emerge from the collapse of the Soviet Union. The bill has already unsteadied Georgia’s relationship with the United States and the European Union, and it could upset the fragile geopolitics of the Caucasus, a volatile region where the interests of Russia, Turkey, Iran and the West have long come into conflict.

The bill has set off night after night of protests in the capital, Tbilisi, that have often descended into clashes with the police. Dozens of protesters have been beaten and arrested as the police used pepper spray, tear gas and fists to disperse them.

News that the law had been approved set off jeers around Parliament, where crowds had gathered for another night of protests.

“There is no future for the country now,” said Gaga Arabuli, 29, an actor and musician who was protesting near Parliament. “We must change this government.”

Others in the crowd shouted “Russians” and “slaves” at lawmakers as they left Parliament after the vote, driving down a side street that hundreds of police officers had sealed off.

The debate over the law has highlighted the highly polarized nature of Georgian society. While many Georgians believe that their government is making a choice in favor of closer ties with Moscow, others have argued that Western-funded NGOs occupy an outsize place in the country’s political life.

“If we let this continue and this government is not changed in October, you are going to see Belarus and Russia here,” said Tinano Gvelesiani, 25, a medical student, referring to another former Soviet state. In Belarus, public expression of dissent became unthinkable after years of oppression by President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko.

With a gas mask and a whistle on her neck, Ms. Gvelesiani said, “Russia has been a looming dark cloud over Georgia’s independence.”

In the vote Tuesday, lawmakers from the ruling Georgian Dream party overrode a veto of the bill that was announced on May 18 by President Salome Zourabichvili. Ms. Zourabichvili has been among the most vocal opponents of the law, but her veto was largely symbolic, because the government easily had the votes in Parliament to pass it with a simple majority.

After the vote, Ms. Zourabichvili addressed protesters from a screen, saying that the 84 lawmakers who voted to override her veto “cannot change the future” of Georgia. She said that the opposition should do everything to prepare for parliamentary elections in October.

Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze, who is part of Georgian Dream, thanked Parliament for passing the law. Speaking at a news conference, he said the measure would help Georgia achieve “peace and stability” and avoid “radicalization and constant attempts to stage revolutions.”

The new legislation is part of a broader package of bills promoted by Georgian Dream that includes restrictions on L.G.B.T.Q. groups, amendments to the tax code that will make it easier to bring offshore capital to Georgia and changes to the electoral code that would increase the ruling party’s control over the body that administers elections.

The bill is officially called “On Transparency of Foreign Influence,” but it has been reviled as the “Russian law” by protesters, who say it resembles legislation that the Kremlin has used to rein in its opponents. Critics also say that the legislation would undermine the country’s long-term objective of joining the European Union, which has expressed concerns about the bill.

In Russia, Grigory Karasin, a senior Russian diplomat who has been involved in talks with Georgian officials, said that, by overriding the presidential veto, the Georgian Parliament had showed its “character and maturity.”

The government backed down on a previous attempt to pass the law last year after facing enormous protests, but this time it was more determined to push it through Parliament. While there is no evidence that Russia is behind the law, critics say the government has become increasingly friendly with Moscow and is seeking to emulate its methods.

The government has said it wants Georgia to be in the European Union and NATO but that it has little choice but to take a more neutral stance on Russia to avoid being entangled should the war in Ukraine spread.

The ruling party has also insisted that the law is necessary to strengthen Georgia’s sovereignty against outside interference. Georgia emerged broken and impoverished after the Soviet collapse, and Western-funded nongovernmental organizations helped the state fulfill some of its basic functions in the early 1990s.

But over time the government began to see the NGOs as its adversaries. It has increasingly accused them of pushing social issues like L.G.B.T.Q. rights that it says run counter to Georgian values and of undermining the country’s sovereignty.

Last week, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, citing the bill, announced “a comprehensive review” of bilateral cooperation between Georgia and the United States and U.S. visa restrictions against Georgian individuals “responsible for or complicit in undermining democracy in Georgia.”

In Moscow, Maria V. Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, characterized Mr. Blinken’s announcement as an example of America’s “cynical and unceremonious interference in the affairs of sovereign states.”

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