Georgia’s controversial ‘foreign agents’ bill was approved this week by the country’s parliament, despite massive street protests and criticism from western governments.

A violent crackdown on protesters and government critics has elicited widespread condemnation inside and outside the country.

So why is the legislation so controversial and how has its fate come to symbolise Georgia’s future path?

What is the law Georgians are protesting against? 

Under a bill approved by Georgia’s parliament on Tuesday, non-governmental organisations and media outlets that receive more than 20% of their funds from donors outside the country would be obliged to register as organisations “bearing the interests of a foreign power”.

The organisations would also face reporting requirements and could be forced to share sensitive information. And they would be heavily penalised for non-compliance. 

The bill was backed by 84 MPs to 30. 

What do domestic critics say? 

Civil society groups, along with many Georgians, have expressed outrage about the legislation.

Opponents of the law say there is little funding available within Georgia outside government and political groups, and that foreign funding helps maintain an independent civil society sector. Some NGO leaders have said they would refuse to register under the new law. 

Nona Kurdovanidze, chair of the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, told the Guardian that “if the bill becomes law, it threatens to seriously undermine the rights to freedom of association and freedom of expression in Georgia”.

“The terminology itself carries a stigma, unfairly tarnishing the reputation of affected organisations by insinuating that they are either ‘traitors’ or agents serving foreign interests,” she added. 

Civil society began blossoming in Georgia in the 1990s, and was a visible force during the 2003 non-violent Rose revolution against Soviet-style rule.

But there is also a sense now in Georgia that the crisis is about much more than NGOs and the media, and that the country’s future – including its democracy and relationship with the west – is at stake. 

“What is happening now goes beyond targeting civil society organisations; it is an attack on the western values,” said Kurdovanidze. 

Why is Georgia’s government taking this step?

Georgia’s prime minister, ​​Irakli Kobakhidze, has argued that the legislation “is solely aimed at promoting transparency and accountability of relevant organisations vis-a-vis Georgian society”.

Experts say that there may be both domestic and geopolitical reasons why the ruling party is choosing this path, after initially dropping a similar bill last year. 

One possible explanation is that Bidzina Ivanishvili, a powerful oligarch and founder of Georgian Dream party, “believes that the west is losing the war in Ukraine” and is using the law to try “to give a signal to Kremlin” as he attempts to secure himself a position in the regional geopolitical order, said Kornely Kakachia, an academic and director of the Georgian Institute of Politics.

Russia and Georgia fought a war in 2008. The resumption of direct flights between the two countries last year angered some Georgians. And Ivanishvili has recently publicly lashed out at the west, intensifying concerns that Georgia could move closer to Russia.

What do Georgia’s western partners say?

The US has been particularly outspoken about its concerns regarding the law and Georgia’s broader trajectory. 

Some European governments have also been vocal, and a group of senior politicians travelled to Tbilisi to personally show support for protesters and Georgia’s European integration. 

And while the EU’s 27 governments did not agree a joint statement due to opposition from Hungary and Slovakia, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, issued a statement on Wednesday stressing that “the adoption of this law negatively impacts Georgia’s progress on the EU path”.

Haven’t we seen this before?

A number of countries have adopted different versions of laws targeting foreign-funded civil society. Critics of the Georgian legislation have dubbed it the “Russian law” due to similarities with a legislation enacted by Moscow in 2012. 

The trend has reached the EU as well: in 2020, the bloc’s top court said Hungary’s NGO law was illegal as it “had introduced discriminatory and unjustified restrictions”.

And in Slovakia, civil society groups expressed alarm at a bill that would label civil society organisations that receive more than €5,000 a year in foreign funding as “organisations with foreign support”.

What happens next? 

If the law comes into effect, Georgia could face significant political and economic consequences. 

Jim O’Brien, the US assistant secretary of state, has suggested funding could soon be pulled.

A group of members of the European parliament has asked for Georgia’s EU candidate status to be “suspended without any further progress in the accession process”. 

And there are now indications that the EU will indefinitely postpone a decision to start accession talks with Georgia if the law is enacted.

Salome Zurabishvili, Georgia’s president, is expected to veto the law. But once the law is returned to parliament, the ruling party can override the veto with another vote. 

Speaking on Wednesday, the president said the government’s latest actions had been a “return to the former past” but insisted that the protests proved that Georgians “will never return to Russian pressure”.

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