Listen to this article:
In early March of 2023, the streets of Tbilisi filled with protestors in a scene reminiscent of the Rose Revolution 20 years ago, which overthrew a dictatorial leader. This time, Georgians took to the streets to protest for their rights due to a “foreign agent” bill. The bill required “individuals, civil society organisations and media outlets that receive 20% [or more] of their funding from abroad” to register as “foreign agents” with the Georgian government. This requirement would have seen many independent journalistic organisations in Georgia forced to register as “foreign agents,” with fines and up to five years in prison if they refused to comply. While the Georgian government claimed that this bill was needed to prevent foreign interference and “help root out those working against the interests of the country,” critics criticised the bill as anti-democratic and an opportunity for the government to crack down on political opposition.
After intense opposition, the Georgian Dream Party (G.D.) scrapped the bill; but the claims from critics were not unfounded. After all, the Caucasus nation has been experiencing a deterioration of its democracy – also known as democratic backsliding – under the government of Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and his ruling G.D. Garibashvili’s government was accused by many democracy watchers of trying to drag Georgia, whose people are overwhelmingly in favour of European integration, into closer ties with Russia. With this goal in mind, it seems that Garibashvili has been slowly altering Georgia’s government to be more like Russia’s autocratic one. The “foreign agent” bill proposed by the government has partly been found to resemble a similar law passed in Russia in 2012 that ultimately helped the Putin regime suppress independent press organisations in the country.
Although the March protests ultimately led to the retraction of the “foreign agent” bill, the whole debacle has shown how public opinion in Georgia has finally boiled over about their government’s increased authoritarianism. Furthermore, it has also fully demonstrated the Garibashvili government’s intentions to vilify democratic processes — the prime minister has referred to the protesters as “U.S.-funded Satanists” and blamed Ukraine for instigating the protests.
The “Foreign Agent” Bill’s Implications for Georgia’s Western Ambitions
Critics have also argued that the proposed bill, had it passed, would have damaged Georgia’s EU aspirations. After Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Georgia applied for EU membership in March, along with fellow post-Soviet states Ukraine and Moldova. Georgia wanted to join the bloc for years, with some previous governments pursuing a fully pro-Western agenda that ultimately aimed for Georgian membership in both the EU and NATO. However, this policy has partly reversed under the helm of Prime Minister Garibashvili. His government has simultaneously criticised Ukraine for “[organising] rallies … to replace the Georgian government” and refused to implement sanctions against Russia while simultaneously expressing that his country wanted to join NATO and the EU.
These conflicting statements show Garibashvili is trying to walk a fine line between Russia and the West. On the one hand, his government has opted for continued, if not closer, ties with Russia. On the other hand, the will of the Georgian people means that he must, at least on paper, continue to try to pursue European aspirations. Georgia’s EU application was denied in June 2022, while those of Ukraine and Moldova were approved, and the two countries officially became “EU Candidates.” The European Commission stated that democratic processes in Georgia still need improvement before it is up to EU standards. In terms of press freedom particularly, “intimidation and physical and verbal attacks on media professionals have increasingly taken place, … and investigations are lacklustre.”
The Commission also highlighted how more needed to be done in improving governmental transparency, including in funding and in day-to-day governance. It also highlights how there was a “blurring of the line between the ruling party and the state,” providing an ironic contrast to the proposed “foreign agent” bill. The G.D. party proclaims that this bill will help increase organisational transparency, while its government receives accusations of decreasing its transparency; the hypocrisy also shows how democratic backsliding in Georgia is affecting its European aspirations.
Georgian Democratic Backsliding and Applications Across Eastern Europe
Georgian democratic backsliding signals a reversal of the pro-Western democratisation process after the Rose Revolution of 2003, led by former President Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili, who is viewed by many Georgians as a leading opposition figure in the country, was arrested after returning to Georgia in 2021 from his exile abroad. Authorities allegedly tortured and denied him medical treatment despite suffering from “life-threatening conditions.” Combined with the “foreign agent” law, this shows how the Garibashvili regime has continued suppressing opposition voices in the country.
Democratic backsliding is, sadly, not an unusual phenomenon in Eastern Europe. Türkiye (formerly known as Turkey), and even EU members such as Hungary and Poland, have strongman leaders or parties that threaten to pull their respective countries into authoritarianism. Russian influence is also not foreign to the region, with Belarus, Moldova, and Serbia being just a few examples of this. In particular, Moldova and Serbia’s cases demonstrate how Russian meddling can result in separatism and unrest in and around the country, similar to the Russian-backed Georgian separatist regions (and self-proclaimed nations) of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Unlike the above-listed examples, Georgia’s people have scored a victory through the March protests. The retraction of the “foreign agent” bill demonstrates that people can still demand change despite surging authoritarianism, like the 2022 Slovenian election when many Slovenians voted “Slovenian Trump” Janez Janša out of office. These examples give a well-needed boost to pro-democracy voices in the region. With the May elections in Türkiye and the November elections in Poland ahead, the protests in Georgia may be crucial in determining the democratic futures of those two nations.