Explained | What is Georgia's 'foreign agents' bill and why does it matter?

Georgia's parliament overcame a presidential veto of a contentious bill on "foreign agents" on Tuesday, setting the stage for the speaker to sign it into law in coming days.
Last Updated : 28 May 2024, 17:02 IST
Last Updated : 28 May 2024, 17:02 IST

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Tblisi: Georgia's parliament overcame a presidential veto of a contentious bill on "foreign agents" on Tuesday, setting the stage for the speaker to sign it into law in coming days in the latest chapter of a political crisis that has roiled the South Caucasus country.

Here's what you need to know about the law, the reaction to it in the West and Russia, and why it matters.

What is the 'Foreign Agents' Bill and who called for it?

The Law on Transparency of Foreign Influence will require all organisations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as agents of foreign influence, with fines for those who do not obey.

The ruling Georgian Dream party promoted the bill, which it says  is modelled on the US's Foreign Agents Registration Act and is needed to promote transparency and combat "pseudo-liberal values" imposed by foreigners.

Who opposes the bill and why?

Georgia's opposition has dubbed it 'the Russian law', comparing it to legislation that Vladimir Putin's Kremlin has used to crack down on political opponents and silence dissent.

Georgian critics say the bill is part of a wider authoritarian trend by Georgian Dream, which has passed legislation to assert its control of the electoral commission and has proposed sweeping restrictions on LGBT rights ahead of elections due by October.

What has happened at the protests?

Spearheaded largely by Georgia's pro-EU Generation Z, the protests are some of the largest seen since Tbilisi gained independence from Moscow in 1991.

They have been met with water cannon, stun grenades and tear gas from police, and dozens have been arrested or hospitalised. Several Georgian opposition figures have reported being beaten or harassed by unknown gangs. Authorities have denied allegations of excessive force.

What do Russia and The West say?

The United States, Britain and EU countries all have warned Georgia against passing the bill, which the EU says is incompatible with its values. Georgia received EU candidate status in December, but the EU has said Tbilisi must make progress with reforms before it can join the bloc.

Georgia has traditionally proven to be one of the most staunchly pro-Western countries in the former Soviet Union, but the bill stands to threaten its strong ties with the US, a major aid donor.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week that Washington was launching a review of cooperation with Georgia and imposing visa restrictions on individuals "responsible for or complicit in undermining democracy in Georgia", as well as their family members. Georgian Dream slammed Washington's move, saying it amounts to "threats and blackmail" against Tbilisi and "a gross attempt to restrict Georgia's independence and sovereignty".

Russia says it wants "stability and predictability" in Georgia but has denied it exerted pressure on its neighbour to pursue the legislation. Moscow last week joined Tbilisi in accusing the US of blackmail and intimidation over the visa ban.

What's at stake for Georgia?

Georgia, a country of 3.7 million people which until 1991 was ruled from Moscow as part of the Soviet Union, stands at a crossroads in its international relations. Domestic critics say the bill will drag the country into Moscow's orbit at a time when polls show the vast majority of Georgians want to join the EU.

Russia is deeply unpopular in Georgia for supporting the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, over which Moscow fought and won a brief war with Tbilisi in 2008. Georgia's government has refused to impose sanctions on Moscow over the war in Ukraine, angering Georgia's largely pro-Ukrainian public.

Why does it matter to the rest of the world?

Georgia occupies a strategic position next to Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan in a region criss-crossed by oil and gas pipelines and bordering the Black Sea.

Like Ukraine, it has found itself caught between Russia and the West since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Both Georgia and Ukraine have been promised an eventual NATO membership. The West has an important stake in whether Georgia returns to Moscow's orbit or throws off Russian influence - and whether that can be done without triggering further conflict.

Published 28 May 2024, 17:02 IST

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