Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on May 29, 2024

The Foreign Agents Law has to be looked at beyond the Russia factor; understanding the political dynamics and the role of NGOs in modern-day Georgia remains crucial

Georgian Dream Party has blown up Tbilisi’s track to Europe

On 15 May, the members of the Georgian Parliament passed the draft law on transparency of foreign influence or the Foreign Agents Law, intensifying the protests underway since mid-April when the draft was first introduced. This law makes it mandatory for NGOs and media organisations receiving more than 20 percent foreign funding to register as foreign agents. This bill was re-introduced in the Parliament after it was quashed post extensive protests last year. The Opposition believe that the law and its motives are akin to the Russian “Foreign Agents Law’’ passed in 2012. In 2023, Georgia’s bid to join the European Union (EU) was conditionally accepted. The passing of the legislation may complicate matters for the South Caucasian Republic.

What is the Foreign Agents Law?

Apart from registering as an entity receiving foreign funds, the law states that if NGOs and media organisations fail to register as foreign agents, fines will be imposed on them. Further, the legislation also clarifies that it does not limit the activities of the subject registered as an organisation carrying out the interests of a foreign power. The Georgian Dream Party, the ruling party in Georgia, believes the legislation will promote transparency and national sovereignty. The politicians voted 84 to 30, with the President of Georgia, Salome Zourabichvili, vetoing the bill, but the veto could be overridden by another vote.

The Georgian Dream Party, the ruling party in Georgia, believes the legislation will promote transparency and national sovereignty.

Georgia is not the first country to introduce such legislation. The first Foreign Agents Law was passed in the United States (US) in 1938. Countries such as Australia, France, Hungary and several other countries have laws regulating NGO funding. According to Archil Sikharulidze, the founder of the Sikha Foundation in Georgia, the Foreign Agents Law should not be misperceived as only curbing the influence of the West, as there is an increasing influence of NGOs funded by Türkiye, China, Iran, and the Arab states in Georgia with agendas beyond the cultural realm.

Understanding the role of the NGOs in Georgia

NGOs have had a place in Georgian politics since the 1990s. The late President Edvard Shevardnadze allowed for the presence of NGOs, which played a prominent role in Georgia’s political economy. Influencing policy and maintaining a vocal presence in the country with the support of international donors . After the Rose Revolution in 2003, when the liberal leader Mikhail Saakashvili overthrew President Shevardnadze, the influence of NGOs in Georgia began to increase as the period was characterised by the appointment of pro-Western professionals from NGOs in the bureaucracy. The country was now open to foreign aid and foreign reform experiments, which resulted in the decline of the influence of Georgian people in policymaking.

Over the years, employment in the NGO sector has been lucrative in Georgian society. There are over 25,000 NGOs in Georgia, with 90 percent of those having funding from foreign sources. The Georgian financial contributions to these NGOs are minimal. Thus, we can observe the agendas of foreign nations or international organisations reflected in public policy.

The country was now open to foreign aid and foreign reform experiments, which resulted in the decline of the influence of Georgian people in policymaking.

For the Georgian Dream Party, however, this was not the primary reason why the legislation was brought. Some of these NGOs are hyper-partisan groups which back the United Movement party and do not recognise the legitimacy of the Dream party. Before introducing the legislation, the government informed the foreign embassies to cease funding hyper-partisan groups. However, no action was taken.

The fragmented political landscape of Georgia

President Zourabichvili, who gave up her French citizenship in 2018, was initially supported by the Georgian Dream Party. However, her pro-Western stance and her increasingly vocal accusations of pro-Russian influence within the Georgian Dream Party have led to impeachment proceedings in 2022. These were triggered by her unauthorised official visits to Brussels and Paris, which violated the Constitution as she did not seek the Georgian government's consent for them. Zourabichvili advocates for a European path for Georgia, distancing from Russia, in contrast to the Georgian Dream Party's stance.

Among the most prominent Dream Party members are Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the Georgian Dream, a former billionaire and oligarch who amassed considerable wealth under Russian President Boris Yeltsin. He is known to have pro-Russian views, wields considerable influence in the Georgian political system, and is the honorary chairman of the Georgian Dream Party. Recently, Ivanishvili denounced the West by calling it a global party of war, trying to drag Georgia into conflict with Russia; according to him, foreign influence in the country has to be checked to avoid colour revolutions sponsored by foreign nations. However, according to Tina Khidasheli, the former defence minister, Ivanishvili is introducing this law to strengthen his grip on power before parliamentary elections this October.

There is no strong political opposition against the Dream Party. The political elite in Georgia is concerned about antagonising Russia. In 2008, Russian-backed separatists took control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and political relations with Russia were strained and  improved only with the arrival of Ivanishvili as Prime Minister in 2012, where trade relations were restored, the visa-free regime was established for Russians, and flights resumed between Moscow and Tbilisi.

Russia has some influence in Georgia, but it would be too far to state that the Georgian Dream Party or Ivanishvili is a Kremlin affiliate.

After normalising ties with Russia, the Dream Party followed a more Western-oriented foreign policy while maintaining relations with Russia. However, over the last few years, it has deepened its relations with Russia by partaking in the parallel import of sanctioned goods through Georgia. Furthermore, since the invasion of Ukraine, Georgia has emerged as a major destination for Russians. Russia has some influence in Georgia, but it would be too far to state that the Georgian Dream Party or Ivanishvili is a Kremlin affiliate. More than 89 percent of the Georgians want to join the EU. Georgia is among the poorest countries in Europe and lacks connectivity with the EU. However, angering Russia by increasing its interaction with the West can have negative consequences, and thus, it is counter-productive for Georgia to pick a side.

International response to the bill

The US Assistant Secretary of State criticised the bill and threatened the parliamentarians with financial sanctions if the law was not in compliance with Western standards or if violence was used on protesters The US State Department issued visa restrictions on individuals responsible for suppressing civil society and freedom of peaceful assembly in Georgia through a campaign of violence or intimidation. The US Assistant Secretary of State further added that the US$ 390 million which was allocated by the US to Georgia would come under review. EU’s top aide Joseph Borell stated that “adoption of this law negatively impacts Georgia’s progress on the EU path” and urged the Georgian authorities to withdraw the law. The Kremlin stated that the law is being misused by the West to stoke anti-Russia sentiments and should not be called a “Russian” law. Furthermore, the contexts under which the Foreign Agents Law emerged in Georgia differs from the Russian Foreign Agents Law. The NGOs in Georgia have considerable influence in the public policy realm. However, the same cannot be said about Russia, as the Russian Foreign Agents Law of 2012 not only keeps a check but also bans media and civil society organisations on non-compliance with the law.


There is some similarity between Georgia adopting the perceived pro-Russian legislation and the then-President of Ukraine, Victor Yanukovich, refusing to sign the EU accession agreement and instead signing economic agreements with Russia in 2013, thereby preventing a move towards EU membership and triggering an intense wave of protests (leading to the ouster of Yanukovich and the installation of a pro-Western government, culminating in the beginning of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine). That said, one must avoid equating the two. The Foreign Agents Law will be used to curb the influence of foreign NGOs, which can influence foreign and domestic policy. Unlike Ukraine circa 2013-14, the Dream Party wants to balance its foreign policy options and avoid being seen as a state aligning with either the West or Russia. This legislation can give more agency to the aspirations of local civil society activists, but considering Georgia’s democratic backslide over the years, the scope of misuse, which includes branding any opposition to the Georgian Dream Party as a foreign agent, is high. What is clear is that Georgia’s accession to the EU will not be easy.

Rajoli Siddharth Jayaprakash is a Research Assistant with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation.

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Rajoli Siddharth Jayaprakash

Rajoli Siddharth Jayaprakash

Rajoli Siddharth Jayaprakash is a Research Assistant with the ORF Strategic Studies programme, focusing on Russia's domestic politics and economy, Russia's grand strategy, and India-Russia ...

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