Questions and answers: Controversial law threatens Georgia’s EU future

Georgia lies geographically between Asia and Europe, politically between Russia and the West. An influential billionaire is trying to slow down the path to the West.

The adoption of a controversial law restricting foreign influence on civil society in Georgia is straining relations between the South Caucasus republic and the EU. Georgia is putting obstacles in the way of the EU, warn top representatives of the European Union and are calling for the law to be withdrawn. The project is also extremely controversial in Georgia itself.

Critics fear that the law will be used to harass civil society, as in Russia. But more broadly, it is also about the democratic development of the former Soviet republic on Russia’s southern border; It’s about the course of the EU accession candidate towards the EU and NATO.

The large-scale demonstrations in the capital Tbilisi are not letting up – even after MPs approved the draft bill in an urgent third reading on Tuesday. On Wednesday, tens of thousands of people gathered again in the center. The police had previously used violence to break up several demonstrations. Questions and answers about the situation:

What is the controversial law about?

According to the Georgian Dream party, which has been in power since 2012, foreign countries have too much influence in Georgia through the support of non-governmental organizations. There is a “lack of transparency,” said MP Maka Bochorishvili from the government camp. The new law tightens accountability for those NGOs that receive more than 20 percent of funding from abroad.

Hardly any other country has received as much help for projects in democracy promotion, media, social affairs, the environment and the economy as Georgia. Of the more than 20,000 registered NGOs, 4,500 to 5,000 are actually active, estimates Stephan Malerius, representative of the CDU-affiliated Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Tbilisi. “I believe that the investments by the EU, the USA and other donors in civil society have been very sensible,” said the head of the South Caucasus South Caucasus regional program Political Dialogue of the German Press Agency.

Critics of the law fear that the organizations will be cut off from foreign money and silenced. In Russia, critical NGOs are branded as “foreign agents”; That’s why the demonstrators in Georgia call the draft only the “Russian law”.

What do Georgian Dream and billionaire Ivanishvili want?

The paradox is that the Georgian Dream government led the successful talks on EU candidate status. According to her words, she is sticking to the EU course – but at the same time she is pursuing good contacts with Moscow.

The party’s strong man is its founder Bidzina Ivanishvili (68), who became a billionaire with business in Russia and was also prime minister for a time. At the end of April he gave a speech in Tbilisi that announced an authoritarian turn – somewhere between Viktor Orban in Hungary and Vladimir Putin in Russia. He threatened the opposition with criminal prosecution after the upcoming parliamentary elections in October. Georgia must protect itself from corrupting Western influence. And he spoke of a “global war party” that was inciting Georgia and Ukraine to confront Russia.

Does Russia really have a hand in this?

Contrary to international criticism, Russia defended the law. “No sovereign state wants other countries to interfere in its domestic politics,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. It is absurd to see the law as a “Russian project”.

But observers like Malerius see similarities to developments in Russia beyond the NGO law. A new law will ease the flow of offshore money into Georgia, which could help Ivanishvili and Russians evade sanctions. Such evidence suggests “that the script for this event was written in Russia,” says Malerius.

Who is responsible for the protests?

Young people in particular are taking to the streets. Many have visited the EU without a visa and see their country’s European prospects at risk. There are no clear leadership figures. But President Salome Zurabishvili is on the side of the protest. There are also trade unionists, prominent athletes and artists, some clergy of the Orthodox Church and individual representatives of the Georgian Dream. In recent days, the state has publicly denounced government opponents and incited thugs to attack them. This fueled the demonstrations.

What consequences can the conflict have?

The EU has called the law an obstacle to Georgia’s accession. “The adoption of this law has a negative impact on Georgia’s progress towards joining the EU,” Foreign Affairs Officer Josep Borrell and Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi said on Wednesday. The decision on the way forward lies in Georgia’s hands. “We urge the Georgian authorities to withdraw the law, maintain their commitment to EU accession and advance the necessary reforms outlined in the nine steps.” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also recently spoke of a crossroads that Georgia finds itself at and called on the country to continue on its course towards the EU.

Perhaps candidate status will not be revoked immediately. But there could be sanctions against Ivanishvili and those around him. In the US leadership, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan expressed deep concern about “democratic regression.”

Ivanishvili and Prime Minister Iraqi Kobakhidze are convinced that they can ride out the wave of protests. But given the dynamics of the protests, it does not seem impossible that the government will fall. Georgian Dream could also lose the parliamentary elections in October, in which it was actually heading for a safe victory given the fragmented opposition.

Withdrawing the law for the second time after 2023 would be a bitter defeat for Georgian Dream, wrote expert Alexander Atasuntsev for Carnegiepolitika. “But not withdrawing it means risking the country’s European future and at the same time your own power.”


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