Lisa Haseldine Lisa Haseldine

Is Georgia’s future with Europe, or Russia?

A man with his face painted in the colours of the EU flag and the Georgian flag (Getty Images)

On Wednesday, Georgia’s government came one step closer to realising its desire to embed the country deeper within Russia’s sphere of influence. A year after mass protests forced them to pull the plug on a controversial ‘foreign agents’ law, the Kremlin-sympathetic ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party is once again trying to force this ‘Russian-style’ legislation through parliament. 

While the bill was undergoing its first reading in parliament, 20,000 Georgians turned out onto the streets to demonstrate. Several thousands protested in Tbilisi alone. Shouts of ‘No to the Russian law’ rang out alongside renditions of the Georgian national anthem and ‘Ode to Joy’, the EU’s official song. Once again, like last year, riot police were deployed. They chased and beat protestors and made numerous arrests.

In recent decades, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and others have welcomed the progressive and liberal benefits offered to them by closer ties to Europe.

This time, unlike last year, when the sheer numbers and anger of the protestors forced legislators to withdraw the bill, the GD were determined to persevere. The bill was reintroduced to parliament at the beginning of April in a move that surprised MPs. It passed its first reading despite being boycotted by opposition MPs. The votes of 83 GD MPs were enough to push it through Tbilisi’s 150-seat parliament.

The bill, dubbed by its critics as the ‘Russia bill’, would require any independent NGO or media organisation to register as an ‘organisation pursuing the interests of a foreign power’ if more than 20 per cent of its funding comes from abroad. It mirrors legislation introduced gradually by Moscow since 2012, allowing the Kremlin to crack down on anyone dissenting against the state – hence the name. Those who oppose the Georgian bill are concerned that their version could similarly be used to crack down on freedom of speech and criticism of the government in the country. Georgia’s prime minister, Irakli Kobakhidze, insists that the law would boost the financial transparency of NGOs funded by Western institutions. But Georgians are painfully aware that this is just a convenient excuse. The country’s president, Salome Zourabichvili, voted independently of the government, and branded it ‘a Russian strategy of destabilisation’ that ‘contradicted the will of the population’. 

Tina Bokuchava, the parliamentary chair of United National Movement (UNM), Georgia’s leading opposition party, told The Spectator that the bill was an ‘orchestrated attempt to sabotage relations with Brussels’ by Bidzina Ivanishvili, GD’s oligarch chairman and one of the country’s richest men. ‘EU membership would offer an economic lifeline to a country whose economy has been blighted by high unemployment and immigration in recent years. But Ivanishvili has been unnerved by Brussels’ demands that Georgia start paring back oligarch influence as a pre-condition of membership’, she said. The founder of UNM and former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, remains in a prison hospital, following a suspected poisoning attempt after being locked up on questionable charges, including embezzlement.

The bill will still have to pass a second and third reading in parliament, and in theory Zurabishvili retains the right to veto it. But as GD holds the majority in the legislature, Georgian law allows them to vote down any presidential veto without the support of the opposition. It seems highly likely, therefore, that the bill will successfully pass.

The crux of the issue around this bill goes deep and reflects the struggle many former Soviet states have faced in the years since the USSR collapsed in 1991. In recent decades, Georgia, along with countries such as Ukraine and Moldova, have welcomed the progressive and liberal benefits offered to them by closer ties to Europe. Their populations have little interest in maintaining close ties to Moscow.

While this struggle is violently playing out in real time on the fields of Ukraine, in Georgia’s case it is unfolding in a more furtive, quieter fashion. In December, Georgia was finally offered candidate status by the EU, on a number of conditions. They were told they must reform their judicial and electoral systems, reduce political polarisation, improve press freedom and curtail the oligarchy that exists in the country. Only then could membership talks formally begin. Under the GD, that is very unlikely to happen. Although the party nominally supports accession to Europe, their desire to re-establish closer links with Russia puts that in jeopardy. 

In response to Wednesday’s vote, the EU condemned the law as ‘not in line with EU core norms and values’, and said it would ‘negatively impact’ the country’s accession into the bloc. The US also felt compelled to condemn the vote, calling the legislation ‘Kremlin-inspired’ and warning that it would damage freedom of expression.

In October, Georgia will hold parliamentary elections – a crucial democratic test for the country. Questions will abound over the degree to which Russian interference will influence the vote. No polling has been conducted in the country since the re-introduction of the ‘foreign influence’ bill, but voting intentions from December have GD in the lead with 36 points. The Victory Platform opposition coalition, to which UNM belongs, received only 21 points.

It remains to be seen whether GD will force this censorious bill through before October’s vote. What is certain, however, is that with every step it takes through Tbilisi’s parliament, it will steer Georgia further away from the EU and closer into the Kremlin’s sphere of influence.

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