Freedom of expression: Georgia’s foreign agents bill threatens rule of law

Ruth GreenWednesday 26 June 2024

Georgia’s ‘foreign agents’ law has sparked mass demonstrations and put the country’s EU candidacy in jeopardy. On 14 May, Georgian lawmakers passed the controversial ‘transparency of foreign influence’ bill – or ‘foreign agents’ law – despite weeks of clashes between police and protesters, who claim the government will use the legislation to stifle free speech and dissent.

Days later, the country’s president, Salome Zourabichvili, vetoed the law and denounced it as ‘Russian in spirit and essence’, but Georgian MPs mainly from the Georgian Dream party, which has parliamentary majority, subsequently voted to overturn the presidential veto.

Under the legislation, media and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that receive more than 20 per cent of their funding from abroad must register as ‘organisations acting in the interest of a foreign power’.

The law draws striking parallels with Russian legislation enacted in 2012 that requires foreign-funded NGOs to register as foreign agents and has since been expanded to shrink all aspects of Russian civil society.

It is not expected that the Constitutional Court will overrule the regime on this point. It has been captured by the state

Davit Zedelashvili
Constitutional lawyer, University of Tbilisi

Georgia’s ‘foreign agents’ bill was initially proposed in 2022 but was dropped amid significant international and domestic backlash that it could severely limit media freedom and democracy and harm Georgia’s bid to join the EU.

The proposals drew criticism from the Georgian Bar Association (GBA), which issued a statement in 2023 that said the legislation posed ‘risks in deepening polarization, social conflict and undermining democratic processes’ and could ‘contribute to the marginalization of human rights lawyers, thereby violating the principles of lawyer equality and non-discrimination.’ 

David Asatiani, Chairman of the GBA and Co-opted Member of the IBA Bar Issues Commission Policy Committee, told Global Insight the law had been reintroduced with only ‘minor changes’ – such as replacing the words ‘foreign agent’ with ‘foreign influence’ – and stressed that ‘some fundamental concerns remained’.

Asatiani says the political furore surrounding the bill has left ‘little space for a thorough discussion of legal and procedural issues’. These concerns were echoed across the international community, including drawing criticism from the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s top constitutional law body.

Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, who visited Georgia in October 2023, previously raised repeated concerns about the draft law. In a statement, she said the most recent parliamentary discussions ‘appear to have taken place without inclusive, transparent and genuine consultations with civil society, society at large and opposition parties.’

The threat to Georgia’s EU accession is particularly perturbing. Georgia applied to join the EU in 2022 and was granted candidate status in December 2023.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said if the government did not rescind the law the country would ‘not progress on the European Union path’ and the bloc would consider freezing financial aid to Tbilisi.

Recent polling indicates around 80 per cent of Georgians want to join the EU. The desire for closer ties with Europe is so wrapped up in the national psyche, says Asatiani, that when high-ranking EU officials criticised the law, civilians had no choice but to protest. ‘The Georgian people, who have invested hope and effort into aligning their country with European values, saw this criticism as an indication that the law could derail their progress towards EU membership, and this has provoked such a reaction of the people.’

Pavel Slunkin, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says the law’s reintroduction reveals the very real dangers of democratic backsliding in Georgia. ‘Despite hundreds of thousands of people on the streets and all this criticism from the Venice Commission and European politicians, the Georgian Dream continue [with the law] and they have all this support from Russia,’ he says. It also illustrates, he says, how easily a democratic country with established institutions can ‘step back into the dark past’.

Local NGOs are preparing to challenge the law at the country’s Constitutional Court. Davit Zedelashvili, a constitutional lawyer at the University of Tbilisi, believes the legal bid may prove largely symbolic. ‘It is not expected that the Constitutional Court will overrule the regime on this point,’ he says. ‘It has been captured by the state for a long time now and acts in many cases as an instrument to justify the regime's policies.’

The law could also be challenged at the European Court of Human Rights, though the prospects there also seem limited. A similar claim was brought in 2013 by NGOs against Russia's ‘foreign agents’ law. It took until June 2022 for the Court to rule that the law violated the rights of Russian civil society, a decision which many described as too little too late.

Looking ahead to Georgia’s parliamentary elections in October, Zedelashvili’s most concerned that the law signals a ‘troubling moment’ as the Georgian Dream seeks to roll back the rule of law and human rights. ‘There’s that realisation now that the government is acting in the interests of Russian geopolitical and state interests,’ he says. ‘By adopting this law, the regime hinted that it has a serious intention also regarding the elections; to use this tool to crack down on election monitoring organisations, expand electoral fraud legislation and its willingness to use mass repression to overcome public protests.’

The government has also proposed a wide-ranging bill on family values and the protection of minors. The proposals, which build on a pre-existing ban on same-sex marriage to outlaw adoption by same-sex parents and ban gender-affirming surgery and treatments, have been condemned as deeply discriminatory to the LBTQI+ community.

It is not expected that the bill will be passed until after the elections, but government opponents believe it signals an attempt by Georgian Dream to curry favour with conservative voters and maintain its grip on power.

Image: Georgian Parliament building. Dejan Gospodarek/AdobeStock.com