Thursday, June 13, 2024

Georgia set to approve ‘foreign agents’ law amid growing Western backlash

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The U.S., meanwhile, has gone further — Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday announced Georgian Dream politicians and their families would face visa bans and a range of potential other sanctions for being “complicit in undermining democracy in Georgia.” Washington has also announced a review of its partnerships with Georgia, which see the country receive significant military and economic support. As first reported by POLITICO, lawmakers have also introduced bills in the House of Representatives and the Senate that would further penalize MPs who back the law and introduce incentives if October’s elections are held fairly and freely.

Kobakhidze has accused the West of “blackmail,” and even claimed the EU’s enlargement chief, Olivér Várhelyi, threatened him with the fate of Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot earlier this month. According to the Georgian leader, the assassination attempt — for which a 71-year-old suspect has confessed to acting alone — was actually part of a sinister conspiracy linked to foreign intelligence services. He provided no evidence for the claims and Várhelyi said his words had been deliberately misrepresented.

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, who is not part of the ruling Georgian Dream party, vetoed the bill two weeks ago, blasting it as a “Russian law” that “contradicts our constitution and all European standards.” | Irakli Gedenidze/AFP via Getty Images

What’s Russia got to do with it?

Fears over the bill have not been helped by threats from Georgian Dream politicians to make civil society workers “disappear,” vow to “punish” the opposition after elections and promote Kremlin-style conspiracies that a shadowy “Global War Party” is pushing Ukraine and Georgia into conflict with Russia. Now, those opposed to the foreign agent law see the fight as a pivotal moment that will decide whether Georgia moves towards the West, or gravitates politically closer to Russia.

Georgia fought a war with Russia in 2008, and around a fifth of the country’s territory is occupied by Moscow and its local partners in the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But Georgian Dream has refused to impose sanctions on Moscow since the start of the war in Ukraine, and has even deepened trade ties as the Kremlin searches for partners to help prop up its sanction-hit economy. Russia has welcomed the bill and foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has joined Kobakhidze in accusing the West of trying to “blackmail” the country.

Speculation is also rife about the role of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the elusive billionaire founder and chairman of Georgian Dream, who made much of his vast wealth in Russia and has been accused of presiding over a pro-Moscow pivot. Ivanishvili has railed against Western NGOs, “LGBT propaganda” and the “Global War Party,” while insisting the country is still on course to join the EU by 2030 — despite clear messages from Brussels to the contrary.

What happens next?

MPs will cast their ballots following a plenary debate Tuesday. If a majority back the bill as expected, it will pass into law.

Some civil society leaders have told POLITICO they will refuse to comply with the new rules. Meanwhile, Georgia’s opposition has vowed to continue its fight, and has been asked by President Zourabichvili to unite behind a shared platform in October’s elections, including overturning the foreign agent law.

In the short term, its passage would likely trigger a new round of penalties from the U.S., while pressure grows in Brussels for the EU to act as well. According to a letter seen by POLITICO earlier this month, more than a dozen EU foreign ministers have urged the European Commission to make it clear that Georgia’s candidacy will be suspended, although Hungary has been actively vetoing efforts to make a joint statement or impose sanctions.

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