'Foreign agents' laws modelled on Russia are now the favourite tool of autocrats in Hungary, Republika Srpska, Kyrgyzstan, Slovakia and Serbia (Photo: Author)


The fight for Georgia’s European future

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The celebration of Georgia’s Independence Day in Tbilisi last Sunday was perhaps more symbolic than ever before. On 26 May, thousands of people proceeded from Merab Kostava Street to Vake Park protesting against the so-called “foreign agent law” – the route of the protesters on Sunday repeated that of Georgia’s first Independence Day march on 26 May 1919 — one year after the country declared independence from Russia.

The foreign agent law will require Georgian organisations receiving more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as foreign agents. The blueprint for this law comes from Russia – a similar act was passed there in 2012 – hence, the slogan of the Georgian protesters: “Yes to Europe, No to Russian Law”.

In Russia, the law was adopted amid the protests against Putin’s decision to return to presidency after four years as prime minister (2008-2012) – the Russian authorities’ crackdown on the protests, which had started in December 2011, marked yet another turn of the authoritarian screw. No surprise that Georgians see the pattern and fear that their country may lose its political freedom again, like it lost its short-lived independence to the annexation to the Soviet Union in 1922.

Today’s autocrats, especially those in flawed democracies and hybrid regimes, have several challenges to deal with: political opposition, an impartial justice system, free-and-fair elections, independent media, and a civil society. The latter two often remain the last bulwark of external democratic checks when other checks and balances have already been corroded by autocratic powers.

The Russian foreign agent law was so efficient in undermining Russian civil society organisations and free media, which often depended on Western financial support, that foreign agent laws have recently become an indispensable instrument in every autocrat’s toolkit.

Viktor Orbán’s Hungary adopted this type of the law in 2017, Milorad Dodik’s Republika Srpska – in 2023, Sadyr Japarov’s Kyrgyzstan – in 2024; and discussions about adoption of similar legislation are underway in Robert Fico’s Slovakia and Aleksandar Vučić’s Serbia.

While autocrats often refer to the foreign agent law adopted in the US in 1938 (Foreign Agents Registration Act, FARA) to deflect international criticism of their attacks on democratic culture, FARA predominantly affects lobbying, law and PR firms working for foreign clients, while the primary function of the autocrats’ “foreign agent laws” is to control civil society and suppress dissent and media pluralism.

Georgia’s ruling party Georgian Dream (GD) of Georgian-Russian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili first tried to adopt the legislation in 2023, but its attempts were stopped by the mass protests and international criticism.

Although the Georgian Dream promised not to revive the draft law after its withdrawal, the party decided to reintroduce it in 2024

The GD’s move runs parallel to the growing anti-Westernism of the Georgian ruling elites disseminating wild conspiracy theories about the West trying to “drag” Georgia into a war with Russia. Speaking to his supporters in April 2024, Ivanishvili produced a myth of the “Global War Party”, an unnamed powerful force “which has a decisive influence on Nato and the European Union and which only sees Georgia and Ukraine as cannon fodder”.

International criticism of the GD’s attempts to reintroduce the “foreign agent law” is, according to Ivanishvili, thus driven by the failure of the “Global War Party” “to turn Georgia into a second front despite great efforts, which it could have achieved very easily with the agents’ return to power”. By the “agents of the Global War Party” Ivanishvili apparently meant Georgian pro-Western democratic parties.

Antisemitic conspiracy theories

In addition to evoking anti-Semitic undertones of the “Global War Party” (a transnational cabal manipulating global events) note that the GD’s MP Mariam Lashkhi even compared the “Global War Party” to the freemasons – the GD’s propagation of this notion signals a geopolitical re-aligning of the Georgian ruling elites.

Ivanishvili feels that Russia is winning the war against Ukraine. Since Moscow’s potential victory will necessarily weaken the West and consolidate Russian illiberal influence in Europe, the GD is poised to join Russia’s side – in defiance of the will of Georgian people, who remain overwhelmingly supportive of the Euro-Atlantic integration.

What remains there for the GD to do is to break the will and spirit of Georgians. Ahead of the parliamentary elections taking place in October this year, the adoption of the “foreign agent law”, which will subvert the free media and domestic election monitoring groups, is just one stage of a creeping anti-Western counter-revolution that aims to kidnap Georgia from the European family and incorporate it into the Russian sphere of influence.

It is existential for European Georgia that the EU does not abandon Georgian people.

Financial support for civil society groups must continue, and the EU should take a more assertive stance in defending the interests of Georgian pro-democracy organisations and its own geopolitical interests in the region.

Meanwhile, the Georgian ruling elites’ regression on democracy and European values should lead to travel restrictions against those responsible for this backsliding and the repressions of Georgian civil society representatives.

'Foreign agents' laws modelled on Russia are now the favourite tool of autocrats in Hungary, Republika Srpska, Kyrgyzstan, Slovakia and Serbia (Photo: Author)


Author Bio

Anton Shekhovtsov is director of the Centre for Democratic Integrity in Vienna, visiting professor at the Central European University, and author of three books: New Radical Rightwing Parties in European Democracies (2011), Russia and the Western Far-Right: Tango Noir (2017), and Russian Political Warfare (2023).


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