Georgia Is Sliding Towards Autocracy After Government Moves To Force Through Bill On 'Foreign Agents'

(MENAFN- The Conversation) Georgia's ruling party attempted to pass a controversial bill on“foreign agents” in March 2023. The law would have required civil society groups and the media to register as being“under foreign influence” if they receive funding from abroad. This type of funding is a lifeline for most non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on human rights as they often receive scant domestic support.

Being designated a foreign entity or under foreign influence could have serious implications. NGOs that receive foreign funding can incur massive fines, face constant surveillance and be required to disclose all of their finances or risk prison time .

The Georgian government, which is led by the Russian-leaning Georgian Dream Party, was forced to withdraw its bill after mass protests broke out. But now, a little over one year later, the bill has been advanced again and thousands of Georgians have taken to the streets in protest once more.

The move to restrict NGOs in Georgia is part of a larger trend to weaken democratic forces in autocratizing and autocratic countries. Whether Russia is directing this trend is unknown, but the Kremlin has certainly been a trailblazer in dismantling civil society and undermining NGOs.

Russia's president, Vladmir Putin, sees foreign-funded NGOs as one of the biggest threats to his grip on power. NGOs can give a voice to those that are unrepresented and powerless, and are vital to fostering civil society. So Putin has made targeting these organisations a major priority.

Foreign agent laws are a cornerstone of Russia's descent into authoritarianism. murathakanart / Shutterstock Foreign agents law

In 2011, Putin was re-elected as Russia's president in a sham election , triggering opposition protests . The Kremlin subsequently passed a series of laws that became much more restrictive of NGOs. From November 2012, any NGO that received foreign funding and engaged in political activities would have to self-report as a“foreign agent”.

This caused several pro-democracy aid agencies to pull out of Russia , including the US Agency for International Development, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute.

These laws became even tougher in 2014 when the justice ministry was given the power to register groups as foreign agents without their consent. Arbitrary laws of compliance and cumbersome administrative procedures were set up, with groups that failed to obey punished with enormous fines. The laws have forced NGOs into a game of cat and mouse for their own survival instead of working towards their objectives of defending human rights.

Other countries have taken note of Russia's success in shackling NGOs. Under the leadership of Viktor Orban, Hungary passed its first foreign agent law in 2017 – a huge blow for its own democracy. Hungary has more recently passed a new sovereignty protection law , creating an investigative body with sweeping powers to gather information on groups or individuals that receive foreign funding and may try to influence public debate.

Kyrgyzstan has also followed suit. In March 2024, Kyrgyzstan's president signed a“foreign representatives” law that was copied almost entirely from the Russian equivalent. It would apply the designation of“foreign representative” to any NGO that receives foreign funding and engages in vaguely defined“political activity”.

Similar foreign agent laws have also emerged in China, India, Cambodia, Uganda and Ethiopia. And their impact has been severe. In Ethiopia, for example, the number of domestic human rights NGOs fell sharply after a law was passed in 2010 limiting how much money they could take from abroad.

Many countries declare these laws as critical to defending national sovereignty. But they are almost entirely used as a pretext to clamp down on political opposition. More than half of the 850 or so entities that are listed as“foreign agents” and“undesirable organisations” in Russia have been added since the invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Abandoning democracy

The Georgian government's decision to revisit its foreign agents law is reflective of how vast Russia's influence over post-Soviet countries has become.

Georgia's former president and current de facto leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has tried to play on people's fears that western-style democracy brings challenges to the traditional family, arguing that the country must rid itself of values alien to Georgia.

NGOs and the media are targeted for supposedly spreading non-Georgian values such as same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ rights .

This is in line with the Kremlin's crackdown on LGBTQ people, particularly since the start of the war in Ukraine. In 2022, a bill was expanded to criminalise any act regarded as an attempt to promote what Russia calls“non-traditional sexual relations”.

It's not clear whether Ivanishvili has coinciding interests with Russia or is simply a Russian puppet . But his decision to cosy up with Russia is not popular with the vast majority of Georgians. A survey from 2022 reveals that at least 75% of Georgians seem themselves as pro-western, with only 2% of the population pro-Russian.

Georgia's de facto leader and founder of Georgian Dream, Bidzina Ivanishvili. Zurab Kurtsikidze / EPA

Georgians are also becoming increasingly dismayed that the ruling party is abandoning even a minimal commitment to democracy. Elections are no longer free and fair as Georgian Dream uses state resources to dole out patronage to its supporters and intimidate voters.

Georgia's slide towards autocracy poses a threat not just to human rights. It is also a threat to the country's future. The protests over the foreign agents law are driven by broader concerns that Georgia is deepening its ties with Russia. This would ruin Georgia's chances of becoming an EU member state, something that 80% of the population supports.

The spate of attacks on NGOs is a critical tool that authoritarian leaders use to expand their power. Though these laws are passed in defence of sovereignty, they represent a clear assault on democracy. As Russian influence continues to grow, these types of copycat laws are more likely to become the norm.

The Conversation


The Conversation

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