Georgia’s New Law: Can Russian Influence Be Eliminated?

There is a growing sense of alarm both inside and outside of Georgia as the former Soviet republic has enforced a new law, which is similar to a bad one used by Russia to suppress opposition forces.

The new law should be carefully applied so that it does not lead to the suppression of human rights.

Georgia’s new law on “agents of foreign influence” perceives media and nongovernment organizations that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad as de facto spies and regulates them. The law requires such targeted organizations to register as “foreign agents.” If they violate the law, they will be fined.

In an extraordinary development, the foreign agent bill, which had been passed by the parliament under the leadership of the pro-Russian ruling party, was overturned by the pro-Western president, who used her veto, but it was finally passed again by the parliament.

Public opinion in the country is divided over the new law. About 10,000 people protested the new law in the capital for consecutive days. They might be worried that the new law will be used to eliminate political opponents in the country and restrict freedom of the press.

In neighboring Russia, after a similar law was enacted in 2012, domestic independent media and NGOs that criticized the government were designated as “foreign agents” one after another and were forced to suspend their activities or dissolve their organizations.

There is concern that the new law will be arbitrarily applied in Georgia as well, and that human rights and freedom of speech will be threatened.

The international community is also becoming increasingly alarmed. The European Union has criticized that the new law runs counter to the principles and values of the EU and called for its withdrawal.

Georgia applied for EU membership in March 2022, shortly after Russia started its aggression against Ukraine, and became a candidate country late last year. The introduction of a legal system that could be viewed as a setback for democracy would hinder EU membership.

While Georgia is moving toward a pro-Western path, the domestic situation in which the country cannot sever ties with Russia has made the state of affairs in Georgia complicated in some respects.

Located south of Russia, Georgia — under a pro-Western government — had a military conflict with Russia in 2008. Georgia does not control some parts of its territory, and Russian forces are stationed there. While anti-Russian sentiment among the people is strong, Georgia has deep economic ties with the country, including in trade.

Many of the people in Georgia support the nation’s accession to the EU, but there is also resistance to Western liberal values, such as rights for sexual minorities known as LGBT.

It is unclear whether Russia directly influenced the passing of Georgia’s new law, but there are moves to introduce similar systems in Kyrgyzstan, another former Soviet republic, and elsewhere.

Caution will be required against any moves by Russia to try to intervene in the politics of other countries and divide them in order to eliminate the West’s influence over its former sphere of influence.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, June 7, 2024)