Caught between the West and Russia, could Georgia be the next Ukraine?

Protests have erupted in Georgia
Protests have erupted in Georgia Photo credit: CNN

By Sophie Tanno and Niamh Kennedy for CNN.

Protests have erupted in Georgia this week after the country's parliament passed the first reading of a draft law that would require some organizations receiving foreign funding to register as "foreign agents."

It has been compared to a draconian set of laws adopted in Russia and condemned by rights groups as a bid to curtail basic freedoms and crack down on dissent in the country.

The developments have sparked mass unrest, with thousands of demonstrators gathering outside Tbilisi's parliament building on Tuesday night, waving not just the Georgian flag but also that of the European Union.

The country, which won its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, has long been playing a balancing act between its citizens' pro-European sentiment and the geopolitical aims of its powerful neighbor, Russia.

In March 2022, Georgia applied for EU membership – an ambition that may be jeopardized by the proposed legislation.

Here's a look at what the controversial law means for Georgia, and how it reached this point.

What's in the bills?

According to Giorgi Gogia, associate director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch, there are two bills currently being discussed in Georgia's parliament.

The first bill would require organizations including non-governmental groups and print, online and broadcast media to register as "foreign agents" if they receive 20 percent or more of their annual income from abroad.

Those who do not comply would face fines of $9,600 US dollars (25,000 Georgian Lari).

The second bill expands the scope of "agents of foreign influence" to include individuals and increases the penalties for failure to comply from fines to up to five years in prison.

For Gogia, the bills represent a clear threat to human rights in Georgia. "They threaten to marginalize and discredit critical voices in the country. This threat is real," he said.

"Under the disguise of transparency, the latest statements by the Georgian authorities strongly suggest that if adopted, the law will be weaponized to further stigmatize and penalize independent groups, media and critical voices in the country."

The first draft law passed on Tuesday in a session that was broadcast live on the legislature's website, with 76 votes for and 13 against. The bill must pass further readings to become law.

The President of Georgia, Salome Zourabichvili, has already pledged to veto it, and as she threw her support behind protesters in a video message posted on Facebook.

"Those who support this law today, all those who voted for this law today are violating the Constitution. All of them are alienating us from Europe," Zourabichvili said in the clip on Tuesday.

"I said on day one that I would veto this law, and I will do that."

However, the country's ruling Georgian Dream party – of which Zourabichvili is not a member – appears to have the parliamentary majority to overcome a presidential veto, according to Human Rights Watch.

Which countries have imposed similar laws?

Georgia's bill follows the model of a controversial law in neighboring Russia that has already imposed draconian restrictions and requirements on organizations and individuals with foreign ties, critics say.

The law was initially passed in 2012 amid a wave of public protests over allegations of election-rigging and Vladimir Putin's intentions to return to the Russian presidency. It required organizations engaging in political activity and receiving funding from abroad to register as foreign agents and adhere to draconian rules and restrictions.

Russia's law on Foreign Agents has been gradually updated since then, forming the backbone of an even tighter stranglehold on civil society in Russia over the past decade.

Gogia said the legislation is similar to the law in Russia in that it is "trying to create a special status and legal regime for organizations and media that receive foreign funding and – under the disguise of transparency – interferes with freedom of associations and media and with their legitimate functions."

Russia-aligned Belarus has had a citizenship law in place since 2002 that has a similar impact. In December 2022, the Belarusian parliament passed amendments to the law which would enable the government to target members of the political opposition, activists and other critics in exile, according to Human Rights Watch.

The draft law would allow the president to strip Belarusians abroad of their citizenship, even if they have no other.

Who is the driving force behind the legislation?

The bills were nominally proposed by a faction in the parliament formed by members who left the ruling Georgian Dream party, but remained in the parliamentary majority, according to Gogia.

"However, the ruling Georgian Dream party fully and publicly supported the bills and campaigned for their adoption, and almost unanimously voted for it in the first reading yesterday," Gogia said.

The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a think tank, believes the party is leading Georgia towards Russia's sphere of influence.

"In the last few years, and especially over the past 18 months, Georgia's ruling coalition has made a series of moves that seem designed to distance the country from the West and shift it gradually into Russia's sphere of influence," a report released by the ECFR in December said.

It pointed to Bidzina Ivanishvili, a former prime minister and billionaire, as a driving force behind this pivot towards Moscow.

"Much of the responsibility for this drift away from the EU lies with oligarch and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose Georgian Dream Party dominates the governing coalition," the report said.

Ivanishvili made a fortune while living in Russia during its turbulent transition to a market economy, and was part of an influential group of Russian bankers who supported the re-election of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1996, according to the ECFR.

What comparisons have been drawn to Ukraine in 2014?

Analysts have noted similarities between the situation in Georgia and Ukraine – both former Soviet republics which have found themselves caught between the East and the West.

The think tank ECFR drew comparisons between the situation in Georgia and Russia's invasions of Ukraine in 2014 and 2022.

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in 2011 that had Russia not invaded Georgia in 2008, NATO would have expanded into Georgia.

The 2008 conflict centered on South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two breakaway provinces in Georgia. They are officially part of Georgia but have separate governments unrecognized by most countries.

Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are propped up by Russia.

The 2008 invasion of Georgia only lasted days, but it appeared to have the same revanchist ambitions that drove Putin's invasions of Ukraine in 2014 and last year, writes the ECFR.

"In this light, Russia's wars in Georgia and Ukraine seem part of a single imperial project," the report said.

How would the legislation impact Georgia?

The Georgia bill has been widely criticized as posing a potentially chilling effect for Georgian civil society, and particularly NGOs and news organizations with links to Europe.

It would also hamper Georgia's bid to join the European Union. An EU statement Tuesday warned that the law would be "incompatible with EU values and standards" and could have "serious repercussions on our relations."

In February, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price also said that "anyone voting for this draft legislation" could also imperil Georgia's relationship with Europe and the West.

"Georgia's international and bilateral partners have been very clear that adopting a 'foreign agent' bill would be inconsistent with Georgia's stated commitments to human rights and its Euro-Atlantic aspirations," Gogia told CNN.

"I hope the Georgian authorities would heed to the warning and instead of passing the bills that would clearly impede the work of independent groups and media, they should ensure safe and enabling environment for civil society in the country."