The West’s double standards on Georgia’s ‘foreign agents’ bill

Robinson: If Western states have their reasons for being cagey of foreign influences, so too do those in other countries

Paul Robinson / May 3, 2024 /

Protesters in Tbilisi, Georgia, April 9, 2021. Photo by Eval Miko/Vecteezy.

The Republic of Georgia has not enjoyed a stable life in the 30 years or so since it gained independence from the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, it was wracked by civil war and ethnic conflict, at the end of which it lost control of the autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In 2003, the so-called Rose Revolution overthrew the government of President Edvard Shevardnadze, after which Georgia experienced the rather erratic reign of Mikheil Saakashvili, who promised to turn the country permanently towards the West, including membership of NATO and the EU.

Saakashvili, however, overplayed his hand, and in August 2008 launched an attack on South Ossetia in an effort to recapture it by force. The Russian army immediately responded, drove the Georgians out and advanced to within a few kilometers of the Georgian capital Tbilisi before agreeing to a ceasefire and heading home. Saakashvili left Georgia in 2013, discredited both by the 2008 war and revelations of rape and torture in the country’s prisons.

Since Saakashvili’s departure, the ruling party in the country has been Georgian Dream, an organization considered somewhat left-of-centre economically but also quite conservative socially, favouring traditional Christian family values. In terms of foreign policy, it remains committed to joining NATO and the EU, and has signed an association agreement with the latter. But it has resisted sending military aid to Ukraine or imposing sanctions on the Russian Federation lest this provoke Russian retaliation that might harm the Georgian economy. This has led critics to denounce it as ‘pro-Russian.’

The rather paranoid perception that Georgian Dream is a tool of Moscow lies at the heart of protests now rocking Tbilisi and threatening Georgia with yet another ‘colour revolution.’ The cause of this is legislation introduced by Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze that would oblige organizations that receive more than 20 percent of their funds from foreign sources to register as ‘foreign agents’ and submit details of their finances to the government. Organizations that fail to do so would be fined.

Kobakhidze says the law is necessary to increase transparency, an argument much used by advocates of similar laws in Western countries. The obvious target of the legislation is the large number of Georgian NGOs who receive money from Western countries for the purported aim of promoting European integration, ‘Western values,’ and so on, and also to carry out tasks such as election monitoring. Kobakhidze complains that such NGOs have promoted revolution (as in 2003), propagated ‘gay propaganda’ and attacked the Georgian Orthodox Church. It would appear that he wishes to rein them in. It is this that riles the thousands of people who have come out on the streets of Tbilisi this past week to protest against the proposed legislation. Wrapping themselves in EU flags, they claim that Georgian Dream is acting under orders from Moscow with the intent of destroying pro-Western forces in the country. “Everything shows that this government is controlled by Putin,” one protestor told the New York Times, while others shouted “No to the Russian law!”

According to Eto Buziashvili, a former advisor to the National Security Council of Georgia, the law is a method of “political repression,” whose aim is “to exhaust civil society and media, … leaving them with no capacity to defend the elections in October.” She continues: “those of us who desire an independent and free Georgia with a liberal democracy and a Euro-Atlantic future will be faced with the choice of either submitting to Russia-dictated rule or leaving the country. If we do neither, they will imprison us.”

Georgian Dream, however, is standing firm. Its leaders see the protestors as ideological zealots bent on revolution and on provoking conflict with Russia. In a speech on Monday, the party’s founder, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, accused the ‘Global War Party’ of being behind the protests. According to Ivanishvili, the Global War Party “wields influence over NATO and the EU, stirring conflicts between Georgia and Russia, and exacerbating Ukraine’s situation.” “Foreign agents still aim to restore a cruel dictatorship in Georgia, but Georgian Dream will prevent this, advocating for governance elected by the people, not appointed from outside,” he says.

Protest against the ‘foreign agents’ bill, Tbilisi, March 8, 2023. Photo by DerFuchs/Wikimedia Commons.

The ‘outside’ Ivanishvili mentioned is quite obviously the West, whose leaders have been outspoken in their criticism of Georgia’s foreign agent legislation. The EU’s diplomatic service, for instance, declared that, “This is a very concerning development and the final adoption of this legislation would negatively impact Georgia’s progress on its EU path. The law is not in line with EU core norms and values.” Meanwhile, a group of 14 US Senators signed a letter to Prime Minister Kobakhidze, arguing that the law “would be used to silence civil society and media that play a significant role in advancing Georgia’s democratic institutions.” They urged him to abandon his “destructive path” as a result of which “Georgia’s transatlantic aspirations are being undermined.”

The hostile reaction of the West once again raises questions of hypocrisy and double standards. After all, not only does the United States itself have a foreign agent law, but the concept is becoming increasingly popular elsewhere in the West, with an ever growing number of countries, including Canada, either adopting such a law or considering it. It would appear that requiring foreign-funded organizations to register with the government is acceptable as long as it is Western states doing the requiring. But when the tables are turned, and it is Western-funded institutions that are being obliged to register, suddenly foreign agent laws turn out to be threats to democracy that are incompatible with fundamental values.

No doubt, those leading the charge against Georgia’s law would argue that the comparison is a false one—that Western-funded NGOs are promoting human rights, democracy, and other universal values and institutions that are for the good of all, whereas foreign agent laws elsewhere are used to do the opposite. But what is a good objective is all in the eye of the observer. In countries like Georgia, Western-funded organizations openly seek to fundamentally alter the political, economic, and social institutions of their host countries to bring them in line with those of the West, and also to turn those countries into the West’s political and military allies. If you live in such a country and happen to disagree with such a fundamental alteration of your homeland, then indeed you could view this process as threatening.

It’s also not as democratic as we might like to think. Integration with the EU, for instance, requires one to bring one’s country in line with a host of demands from Brussels. Those overseeing the process are often more concerned with doing what the EU says they must do than with doing what their own people want. Moreover, what are nowadays referred to as ‘Western values’ are not universally popular, and the fact that those promoting those values are the beneficiaries of substantial foreign funding while those opposing them have very few resources of their own can be seen as not just unfair but deeply undemocratic.

In short, if Western states have their reasons for being cagey of foreign influences, so too do those in other countries. Moreover, while the push towards Western integration may work in countries that are relatively united in favour, elsewhere it can prove deeply divisive and, as shown by Ukraine, eventually extremely destructive. This is particularly so in cases such as Georgia, where the issue is wrapped up in geopolitical rhetoric that casts it as a struggle of good (the West) against evil (Russia). Contrary to the protestors’ claims, there is no evidence that Moscow is pulling the strings in Tbilisi, but their insistence that it is risks turning a domestic pursuit into something much wider and consequently much more dangerous.

Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy. He is the author of numerous works on Russian and Soviet history, including Russian Conservatism, published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2019.