EXPLAINER: What is the controversial Georgia 'foreign agents' law?

After two days of intense street protests in Georgia's capital Tbilisi, ruling lawmakers in the South Caucasus country on Thursday scrapped plans to introduce what critics called a Russian-inspired "foreign agents" law.

But what were the plans – and why did they cause such an uproar?


What is the proposed 'foreign agents' law?

• Individuals, civil society organizations and media outlets that receive 20 percent of their funding from abroad would have been required to register as an "agent of foreign influence" with the Georgian Justice Ministry.

• Organizations would have to meet what Human Rights Watch described as "onerous reporting requirements and inspections" and would face fines of up to 25,000 Georgian lari ($9,600) for failing to comply, with prison sentences of up to five years for repeated offenses.


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• Swathes of Georgian civil society, including election monitors, corruption watchdogs and independent media outlets would have been covered by the law.

• Rights groups say the "foreign agent" tag is a stigma, designed to create mistrust and make it easier for the government to discredit its opponents.


Why was it introduced?

• Government officials said the proposals are necessary to root out "foreign influence" and "spies" from Georgia's political scene, and that Georgians have the right to know who funds non-government organizations working in the country.

• It says it is modeled on the United States 1938 "Foreign Agents Registration Act," which primarily covers lobbyists and organizations directly working for or under the control of foreign governments.


What did critics say?

• Opponents said the legislation was inspired by a 2012 Russian law that has been used extensively to crack down on dissent for the past decade. Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, a former French diplomat who wants to steer the country closer to Europe, openly opposed the government over the bill and said she would veto it – though parliament, where the governing Georgian Dream party has a majority, could have overruled her. She told CNN on Wednesday that the draft law "goes against all the principles that the EU stands for."

• Some 400 Georgian non-government organizations signed a letter saying the bill was "an attack on Georgian values", would "hinder Georgia's progress towards EU membership" and would cause "immeasurable harm to hundreds of thousands of citizens."

• Human Rights Watch said it "would have a serious chilling effect on groups and individuals working to protect human rights, democracy, and the rule of law."

• Georgian lawmakers brawled during a hearing on the bill this week, and tens of thousands of people protested, chanting "no to the Russian law" and opposing what they say is creeping Russian influence in Georgia.


How did the international community react?

• European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bill went against EU values and Georgia's aim of joining the EU, and its adoption "may have serious repercussions on our relations."

• The U.S. Helsinki Commission, an U.S. government agency, said the law demonstrated "the present government's increasing embrace of Russia."

• The State Department said Washington was "deeply troubled" by the bill, which would "stigmatize and silence independent voices and citizens of Georgia." Washington has rejected comparisons with its own legislation.


What is the role of Russia?

• Much of Georgian society is strongly anti-Moscow following years of conflict over the status of two Russian-backed breakaway regions, which flared into war in 2008. The two countries have no formal diplomatic relations.

• Opponents say the ruling Georgian Dream party, however, has close relations with the Kremlin. Its founder Bidzina Ivanishvili is Georgia's richest man, having amassed his fortune in Russia during the privatizations of the 1990s. The Kremlin said on Thursday it had nothing to do with events in Georgia but was concerned about the unrest.

A demonstrator wears a European Union flag during the Tblisi protests. /Zurab Javakhadze/Reuters
A demonstrator wears a European Union flag during the Tblisi protests. /Zurab Javakhadze/Reuters

A demonstrator wears a European Union flag during the Tblisi protests. /Zurab Javakhadze/Reuters

• Tbilisi has not imposed sanctions on Moscow over the war in Ukraine, despite large-scale protests in the country calling for a tougher line against what Russia calls its 'special military operation.'

• In a policy paper, the European Council on Foreign Relations said in recent years the government "has made a series of moves that seem designed to distance the country from the West and shift it gradually into Russia's sphere of influence."


What about Europe?

• Opinion polls routinely show that a majority of Georgians are pro-European and see the country's future as moving towards EU membership.

• Georgia applied for EU "candidate status" last March, alongside Ukraine and Moldova. But Brussels rebuffed Tbilisi's bid, citing concerns over the rule of law and judicial independence, among other factors.

• Critics say the ruling party is merely paying lip service to the idea of EU membership, while its policies signal an anti-democratic turn.

• The EU's delegation to Georgia praised the decision to withdraw the bill, calling on the country's political leaders to resume pro-EU reforms.


Has the law been killed?

• On Thursday, the government said it was putting the law's passage through parliament on hold.

• It attacked the "radical opposition" and a "machine of lies that presented the bill in a negative light," using the "false label of a 'Russian law'" to depict the bill as a move that could threaten Georgia's hopes of EU membership.

• It said it would launch a public consultation period to "better explain to the public what the bill was for and why it is important."

• On Tuesday, lawmakers had sent the bills to the Venice Commission, a Council of Europe body that advises countries on the impact draft laws have on the functioning of democracy and human rights, and said they would await feedback.

• The opposition has called for a new protest starting at 7 p.m. (1500 GMT) on Thursday, demanding that the government formally denounce the plans and release all those detained during the demonstrations.


Video editor: Tom Triebel

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Source(s): Reuters

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