Putin driving wedge between Georgia and West as Ukraine crisis looms

Georgia lawmakers clash violently over ‘foreign agents’ law

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The Georgian government has been “influenced and inspired” by Vladimir Putin as it looks to pass a new bill, Express.co.uk has been told. It comes after thousands turned out on Tbilisi’s streets, the capital of Georgia, clashing with police over the new ‘foreign agent bill’. Riot police used water cannons and pepper spray to disperse an enraged crowd, many of whom waved EU flags.

The new bill closely resembles a law which was passed in Russia in 2012 shortly after mass protests at Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party and allegations of foul play at the ballot box.

Russia’s “foreign agent law” requires anyone who receives “support” from outside Russia or is under “influence” from outside the country to register and declare themselves as “foreign agents”.

In Georgia, the new bill would require non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and independent media who received more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to declare themselves as foreign agents.

Natia Seskuria, founder and director of the Georgia-based Regional Institute for Security Studies (RISS), believes such a law will drive a wedge between Georgia and the West — the very direction it has in recent years been hoping to move towards.

When asked if the Georgian government had been influenced and inspired by Putin, she told Express.co.uk: “Yes. The essence of the law is problematic and it’s not suitable for Georgia if Georgia really wants to be a well-established democracy and part of the Euro-Atlantic space.

“And the timing couldn’t be worse, because Georgia still has a chance at EU candidacy status, and we see that European leaders and ambassadors all have this one message: that this will be hugely damaging for Georgia in its path to European integration.”

This, she suggested, is exactly the trajectory Putin will want in the region.

Russia has sought to influence the Caucasus region for centuries. In the last 200 years, today is the longest period in which Georgia has been able to operate freely and independently of Russia.

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Ms Seskuria explained: “Anything that puts Georgia in an unfavourable position when it comes to European and Euro-Atlantic integration will please Putin.

“It’s a very difficult time for him because he’s losing credibility, especially in the region. We see that Russia is experiencing a lot of issues in Ukraine, and Russia has not really performed the way it had wanted to perform in the country.

“So this, of course, raises questions even among the countries that were traditionally allied to Moscow.

“In that sense, given this context, we see that Putin’s interest is to maintain and keep as many neighbouring countries as possible away from the European and Euro-Atlantic structure — so anything that serves this purpose is of course good news for Putin.”

Opposition to Georgia’s governing Dream party described the new bill as a Russian-style law. They say it would vilify and repress Georgia’s civil society and various independent media, much of which has become vibrant and exciting to Georgians living in the country in the last decade.

The move is odd given that only last year, shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Georgia officially presented its application for EU membership. It is also awaiting NATO membership, something the western alliance promised it in 2008 and which, it is thought, sparked Russia’s subsequent invasion of Georgia.

Yet, by mid-2022, the seams of Georgia’s European dream appeared to be coming apart. In July, Dream party chairperson Irakli Kobakhidze launched an otherwise random torrent of criticism of the EU and US.

And by August, the party wrongly claimed that Georgia’s strategic allies, those NATO member countries, were trying to force it into a war with Russia.

At the time, 48 members of Georgia’s parliament condemned the accusations and urged the Dream party to stop its “slanderous and disinformation campaign against Georgia’s strategic partners—the US and EU.”

Opposition politicians were furious with the news of the foreign agents bill, with footage from inside the parliament showing lawmakers engaged in a brawl.

Protestors and incensed opposition politicians fear that the new bill could end the country’s long-standing ambition to join the EU — a move which would not only open up economic and social opportunities but also pull it away from Russia’s sphere of influence.

Over 80 percent of Georgia’s population supports what is known as Georgia’s European perspective, something which is enshrined in the country’s constitution.

Yet, in a visit to Germany to attend the ITB Berlin 2023 tourism fair on March 7, Georgia’s Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili hinted at what might come next for Georgia when he said: “The future of our country does not belong and no longer belongs to foreign agents or servants of foreign countries. The future of our country and our people belongs to patriots.”

He went on to claim that many of those so-called “foreign agents” — civil society organisations — are “directly fighting against statehood and state interests”.

He continued: “We know a lot of organisations that hold anti-government rallies with foreign funding, a lot of provocative events that do not serve the national interests of our country.”

Mr Garibashvili said such a foreign agents bill wasn’t uncommon, referring to the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

However, a key difference between FARA and Georgia’s prospective law is that the former does not require registration by organisations solely on the grounds of receiving funds from abroad. Rather, FARA requires those organisations to register if they are acting “at the direction and control of a foreign government,” according to a report by East-West Management Institute looking into the new bill.

It means that if passed, Georgia will join the likes of other undemocratic and authoritarian-style former post-Soviet states like Belarus, Tajikistan, and Azerbaijan. All those countries have essentially taken their policy straight from the Putin handbook and restricted NGOs from operating freely.

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