Georgian parliament overrides veto of controversial foreign agent law

Tbilisi, Georgia — Georgia’s parliament on Tuesday overrode the president’s veto of a controversial foreign agent law, despite protests at home and criticism in Western capitals, including a U.S. threat to impose sanctions.

The new measure is officially called the “Law on Transparency of Foreign Influence.” However, opponents have dubbed it the “Russian law,” a reference to Russia’s foreign agent law, which requires anyone who receives support from outside Russia, or is seen as acting under “foreign influence,” to register as a foreign agent. 

“I was watching the live broadcast of the vote with my mother. Till the last moment, we still had a hope. We hoped that their consciences wouldn’t allow it. But it happened, and I am really saddened. However, what gives me hope are the demonstrators,” said Nana Jikia, a student. “We want European future; we do not want to be a Russian province.”

The Georgian law requires civil society organizations, media and other entities receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as agents of foreign interests. The law primarily targets U.S. and European Union democracy assistance programs.

President Salome Zourabichvili vetoed the legislation on May 18, but it was widely expected that the ruling Georgian Dream party’s parliamentary majority would override the veto.

“There’s only one way forward for Georgia. For its sovereignty and freedom and liberty, and that is to remove this government democratically through next elections, to continue this protest, to have an overwhelming moral majority and, like 30 years ago in 1990 when communists were defeated even before elections, they have to accept that they have to give up power,” Giga Bokeria, head of the opposition European Georgia party, told VOA.

Georgian Dream reintroduced the law in April, a year after it abandoned in March 2023 after it sparked mass protests.

Protesters view the law as a move by the government to tilt the country toward Moscow, even though polls show more than 80% of Georgians support Georgia’s path toward EU membership and 73% endorse the country’s bid to join NATO.

General elections in October will determine whether the Georgian Dream party remains in power for a fourth term. Georgian nongovernmental organizations say the foreign agent law may hinder international organizations’ ability to observe the October vote. While the government claims the law promotes transparency, local NGOs and Georgia’s Western partners view it as targeting Western funding for Georgian civil society.

“Having no chances of victory in the upcoming general elections in October if they are conducted freely and fairly, [Bidzina] Ivanishvili” — Georgian Dream’s shadow leader — “is tightening his grip on power through harsh authoritarian measures and is openly driving the country into Russian influence,” former Georgian ambassador to the United States David Sikharulidze told VOA outside the parliament building in Tbilisi.

“It’s very much in line with Putin’s tactics,” he said.

“This law is a Russian law in essence and spirit, which contradicts our constitution and all European standards,” Zourabichvili said in her veto statement.

Zourabichvili, whose election as president in 2018 was supported by Georgian Dream, has increasingly found herself at odds with the party.

Apprehension over the domestic and foreign policy trajectory of Georgia’s government has grown since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Official Tbilisi refused to side with Ukraine publicly or to join sanctions against Moscow, while attacking Ukrainian officials publicly and echoing anti-Western rhetoric.

In addition, U.S. lawmakers have raised concerns about Georgia’s role in helping Russia evade Western sanctions.

For more than a month and a half, tens of thousands of Georgians have taken to the streets to protest the foreign agent law, the largest protests the country has seen since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

“Georgian people have erupted in protest. They deserve more than just statements from the Western partners,” Sikharulidze said.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced sanctions against those “responsible for undermining democracy in Georgia.”

“The Department of State is implementing a new visa restriction policy for Georgia that will apply to individuals who are responsible for or complicit in undermining democracy in Georgia, as well as their family members,” Blinken said in a statement. “This includes individuals responsible for suppressing civil society and freedom of peaceful assembly in Georgia through a campaign of violence or intimidation.”

Georgian Dream officials dismissed the visa restrictions as interference in Georgia’s internal affairs.

“The blackmail with visa restrictions are nothing but a crude attempt to limit the independence and sovereignty of Georgia,” the Georgian Dream party said in a statement, labeling the move “anti-Georgian.”

For their part, European Union officials have warned that adopting the foreign agent law would jeopardize Georgia’s bid for EU membership.

“The law of foreign influence is not in line with EU values. If the law is enacted, it will impact Georgia’s EU path,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.

Georgian officials have dismissed the critical voices in Washington and Brussels as part of what they call the “Global War Party,” which one Georgian Dream MP described to a British podcaster as a “‘force akin to the Freemasons.”

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