New protests erupt in Georgia after parliament passes ‘foreign agent’ law

Tbilisi, Georgia — Hundreds of protesters donning gas masks and protective goggles shut down streets in Tbilisi on Tuesday after Georgia’s parliament passed a so-called “foreign influence” law that critics call a copy of Russia’s foreign agent law, heavily relied upon by the Kremlin to suppress dissent.

Ruling Georgian Dream party lawmakers approved the legislation despite warnings from Washington and Brussels that such a move might threaten Georgia’s partnership with the West.

For over a month, tens of thousands of Georgians have flooded the streets to protest the legislation in the largest rallies the country has seen since the nation’s independence from the Soviet Union.

Protester Giorgi Iashvili was just 20 when he was called up as a reservist in 2008 to fight in the war that Russian military and Moscow-backed-separatist forces launched against his country.

Sixteen years later he finds himself once again rallying against Russia’s ongoing efforts to subjugate his country, this time, he says, with tacit assistance of the Georgian government itself.

As a young cybersecurity professional, Iashvili firmly believes enactment of the foreign agent law is inexorably pushing the country, a fifth of which is already occupied by Russia, deeper into Russia’s orbit.

“In 2008, Russia attacked Georgia directly and conventionally. In recent years, however, it has resorted to hybrid methods — disinformation, influence operations, borderization [creeping annexation], infiltration, and cyber campaigns,” he told VOA’s Georgian Service. “Both this law and recent events are evidently part of this hybrid warfare.”

Like many of his young fellow protesters in Georgia’s capital Tuesday, Iashvili appeared hopeful amid unsettling circumstances.

“I believe that a significant part of our society remains vigilant against these threats and refuses to fall victim to these information operations,” he said. “The current wave of protests serves as confirmation.”

Targets foreign funding

Georgia’s foreign influence law requires civil society organizations, media and others that receive 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.

The public’s discontent with the government has been simmering gradually. The Georgian Dream-led government, now in its third term, is said to be controlled by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire who amassed his wealth in 1990s Moscow and has since strategically appointed loyalists to key government positions.

Ivanishvili rejects that accusation, as do the Georgian Dream officials who also deny that they’re quietly working to support Russian efforts to undermine Georgian democracy.

The government has long conducted a two-pronged foreign policy, working with Western partners to appease its overwhelmingly pro-European population while simultaneously warming up to Moscow under the pretext of preventing another conflict. It has claimed publicly to be moving the country in a westward direction while fomenting anti-Western sentiment domestically.

While Georgia’s ruling government has allowed a large number Russian men fleeing the military draft to enter the country, it has refused entry to members of Russia’s military opposition and failed to join Western countries imposing sanctions on Russia.

Georgian Dream leaders blame the war in Ukraine on President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, putting their government at odds with the West. Georgian authorities have criticized their Ukrainian counterparts and repeatedly accused Ukraine and its Western supporters of attempting to embroil Georgia in the conflict, labeling them the “global war party.”

“The protests are not merely about a Russian law,” Helen Khoshtaria, the leader of the Droa opposition party, told VOA. “It’s about the survival of Georgia and its aspiration to remain a free, European nation, which Ivanishvili has jeopardized. He openly stated that the enemies of this country are not Russia, its actual enemy … but the U.S. and the EU, when the overwhelming majority of this country, the entire nation, holds the opposite belief.”

Giorgi Vashadze, the leader of the Strategy Agmashenebeli opposition party, told VOA: “We aspire to be part of the European Union. We envision a Georgia without Russia, without Russian oligarchs.”

U.S. anti-Nazi law cited

The Georgian government has staunchly defended the law, calling it similar to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA — a comparison U.S. officials reject.

Enacted in 1938 to unmask Nazi propaganda in the United States, FARA requires people to disclose to the Justice Department when they advocate, lobby or perform public relations work in the United States on behalf of a foreign government or political entity.

“Our appeal to the U.S. is to think about partnership and not take counterproductive steps,” Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze said after meeting with U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs James O’Brien in Tbilisi on Wednesday.

The protests have taken place almost every day since the beginning of April. For the first time in years, those taking to the streets are self-organized grassroots activists without a leader or political party behind them.

Georgian authorities have arrested dozens of demonstrators over the past few days. Dozens have been assaulted or intimidated by riot police, prompting widespread condemnation by local watchdogs and Georgia’s Western partners.

“They have detained scores of youth and representatives of civil society,” former State Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Buka Petriashvili told VOA. “We are witnessing the establishment of Ivanishvili’s autocratic regime and obstruction of Georgia’s path toward the European Union. Georgia will never accept the blocking of its path toward the European Union and will fight until we prevail.”

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