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America’s Arrogant Imperialism on Full Display in Tbilisi

Why is the U.S. dictating internal Georgian politics?


The Black Sea country of Georgia was recently convulsed by protests over the passage of legislation requiring disclosure of foreign funding of NGOs. The controversy is a big deal in Tbilisi. However, the issue doesn’t matter much in America. At least, it shouldn’t.

But that ignores the endless ambitions of those who rule Washington, D.C. Georgia’s elected government refused to comply with instructions to drop the bill. So, the Biden administration is determined to impose its will.


Just another day in the Imperial City.

Georgia was one of the Soviet republics that broke free when the USSR imploded. The new country’s birth was tumultuous, and the famed Rose Revolution later brought to power a Georgian version of Volodymyr Zelensky by the name of Mikhail Saakashvili. The latter tied himself to Washington, lobbied to join NATO, and, expecting American support, made the disastrous mistake of bombarding Russian troops stationed in the breakaway territory of South Ossetia, triggering Moscow’s 2008 invasion. 

Alas, amid a short but not-so-sweet war, Tbilisi discovered the limits of American backing. A proposal to destroy tunnels used by Russia to reinforce its forces fighting in Georgia reached President George W. Bush, who, thankfully, decided that the wannabe U.S. ally was not worth World War III. Saakashvili was defeated for reelection, with power shifting to the opposition Georgia Dream Party. The latter did what any sensible small nation neighboring an angry giant does: adjust and accommodate. Although reviled in Washington, Georgia Dream was twice reelected. While U.S. policymakers wanted to use Tbilisi to hem in Russia, Georgians decided to set their own course. 

With Tbilisi approving the disclosure bill, the Biden administration is attempting to force Georgia’s elected parliament to reverse course. Just as a sparrow does not fall to earth without God knowing, apparently no law is passed in Tbilisi without Washington judging.

Critics view the legislation as the end of Georgian democracy, hence the need for action. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the measure would “compel us to fundamentally reassess our relationship with Georgia.” James O’Brien, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, warned the measure “could be a turning point in what has been till now a constructive and productive partnership” between America and Georgia. He threatened sanctions on Georgian Dream legislators who supported the measure, and soon thereafter State-restricted visas for the presumed Georgian miscreants.


The reaction on Capitol Hill, filled with self-anointed secretaries of state, was similar. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) drafted legislation targeting Georgia. The measure would sanction officials who “have material responsibility for undermining or injuring democracy, human rights, or security in Georgia,” including those responsible for passage of “the recent Russia-style foreign agent legislation.” He would also offer trade and visa benefits if that government complied with Washington’s will. European politicians demanded the European Union impose similar penalties while suspending action on Tbilisi’s application to join the EU. 

Critics blame Moscow for the controversy. 

The Hudson Institute’s Luke Coffey opined that the measure was called “the ‘Russian law’ because it mirrors a Kremlin law designed to silence, stifle, and shut down political opposition.” Analyst Ivana Stradner claimed that Moscow’s objective is to keep “Georgia in its grasp without a single bullet being fired” and that the legislation “will be a catalyst for other governments to adopt more authoritarian rules.” Natalie Sabanadze, a former ambassador to the EU, called the bill a “coup d’etat” and remarked: “I have no idea whether they’re working on Russia’s instructions, but they certainly are fulfilling their interests.”

All this may be Moscow’s plan, but no evidence has been offered to that effect. Mandating transparency itself is not undemocratic. Georgia’s bill requires NGOs to register if more than 20 percent of their funding comes from abroad. They would have to disclose relevant information to the authorities. Such groups would be viewed as either promoting foreign interests or being “agents of foreign influence.” No one wants to be labeled as such, but the bill would apparently do no more. In practice, then, the legislation is striking in its modesty. No one will be jailed. No one will be barred from politics. No one will be fined. Rather, foreign funding will be disclosed to the Georgian public.

The real objection is that most foreign NGO money comes from the U.S. and Europe. Hence Georgian protestors waving the EU flag. Despite the allies’ high-minded blather about democratic values, they would prefer to keep their activities secret. Western funders might claim they are supporting democracy, but their ultimate objective differs little from that of more authoritarian states, installing friendlier governments. Which is precisely why the existing authorities bridle at foreign funding of NGOs.

Years ago a friend who worked for the U.S. government-funded International Republican Institute told me that he was officially tasked with promoting democracy but was barred from meeting with the largest elected party in one country’s parliament because it was populist and opposed to EU membership. I happened to be in that nation on its election day and he could not meet me: he told me that he was too busy promoting the mainstream, pro-EU parties. Indeed, despite the largely discredited claim of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race, America is the world’s most active election meddler: a Carnegie-Mellon study reported that Washington had interfered with foreign contests more than any other nation, 81 times between 1945 and 2000.

While Moscow regulates foreign funding and influence, the real problem there is authoritarian practices, not transparency requirements. After all, Americans also bridle at foreign activities in the US, including alleged Chinese and Russian attempts to influence U.S. elections, foreign contributions to American political candidates, and foreign funding of Washington think tanks. Surely the Biden administration does not believe that Vladimir Putin and his coterie of friendly business oligarchs have a democratic right to secretly fund American political activities.

In fact, the U.S. has always been sensitive to overseas influences in American politics and business. In his Farewell Address, President George Washington warned, “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow citizens) the jealously of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience provide that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republic government.” During America’s early years there were controversies over British, French, and Spanish activities. 

Congress passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act in 1938. According to the Congressional Research Service, the purpose was “to reduce the influence of foreign propaganda circulating in the United States.” That is, to prohibit certain views, especially if funded by certain foreigners. Agents of “foreign principals” must register with the government. The measure is expansive, defining foreign principals as foreign governments, political parties, entities, and people. Engaging in political or PR activities, collecting or spending money, and representing foreign principals to the U.S. government make one a foreign agent, subject to FARA’s registration, disclosure, and record-keeping requirements.

America’s expansive law has created a specialty practice for lawyers. For instance, Covington & Burling published a guide to the law, which is generating an increasing number of prosecutions. Among the firm’s judgments: “FARA is written so broadly that, if read literally, it could potentially require registration even for some routine business activities of law firms”; “FARA is a complicated, arcane, and loosely worded statute”; FARA “triggers for registration are, on their face, extremely broad”; “FARA has no de minimis threshold. It can be triggered by even the slightest activity that means any one of the statutory triggers.” Covington also warns of “common traps” yielding criminal liability “even without a contract or payment, and even if the foreign person is not a government official.”

Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney offered similar warnings. For instance, “the broad array of activities that may trigger FARA registration requirements becomes even more expansive when considering how the law defines ‘political activities’.” Moreover, “when read together, the scope and reach of FARA’s applicability is expansive and could include a wide range of activities conducted on behalf of foreign governments, political parties, and/or organizations, including for example: lobbying U.S. government officials, activities undertaken to promote the U.S. public’s perception of a foreign government or entity, or even providing a forum for foreign officials to promote their programs and ideologies.”

If America has not abandoned democracy by enforcing such an act, why is Georgia’s measure, approved the required three times by an elected parliament, inconsistent with democracy?

Indeed, the allies seem to have given up on elections as a measure of democracy. For American and European policymakers bent on regime change, demonstrations override elections. Thus, Rep. Wilson declared that “the pro-Russian government is going against patriotic Georgians who reject life in the Kremlin’s dark ages. The repression of freedom-loving Georgians must stop, and the U.S. stands firm in calling for a return of democratic norms and values.” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen similarly claimed the legislation “is at odds with the wishes of the Georgian people.”

This is a remarkably arrogant characterization of another country’s politics. It ignores the sentiments of presumably patriotic Georgians who voted Georgia Dream into office. It treats demonstrating rather than voting as reflecting “democratic norms and values.” (However valid, the charge that the government used excessive force against protestors has nothing to do with the transparency bill.) Similar was the 2014 overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich. He was thoroughly corrupt, but was democratically elected in what Western observers acknowledged was a reasonably fair election. He was overthrown by street demonstrations in an opposition-dominated city which effectively disenfranchised millions of people who had voted for him, and, according to polls at the time, opposed his ouster. Who were the true “democrats”?

In the end, the Georgian controversy has little to do with democracy. Instead, Tbilisi’s critics are upset with the choices made by Georgia’s democratically elected politicians. Coffey argued that Georgia Dream was once reliably pro-Western, but that pro-Russian elements have “worked their way to the top.” Although Tbilisi remains officially for EU and NATO membership, he complained that the government isn’t vigorously pushing those issues. Moreover, noted Coffey, Georgia did not support sanctions on Moscow or Georgians volunteering to fight for Ukraine. Rep. Wilson had his own list: Georgia’s government “has openly attacked U.S. and other western democracy promotion organizations as well as local and international civil society while embracing increased ties with Russia in particular, as well as China.” 

These positions are not surprising for pragmatic leaders of a small nation living in the shadow of a threatening neighbor. Especially when the allies have demonstrated their readiness to use other people to fight a bloody proxy war against Russia. However sympathetic Georgians may be to Ukraine, how many want to follow Kyiv into the abyss?

Of course, Brussels is entitled to set the EU’s entry criteria, which might include accepting well-funded European NGOs. What, however, is Washington’s excuse for meddling? American policymakers might question the judgment of Georgian voters and leaders, but that’s no justification for punishing them. If the Georgian government is, as claimed, out of step with the Georgian people, critics can make the law an issue in parliamentary elections set for October. Indeed, that is what Georgia’s elected but largely ceremonial president, Salome Zourabishvili, promised to do after unsuccessfully opposing the bill. 

U.S. policymakers confront manifold policy challenges. A superpower should set priorities and leave other countries, governments, and peoples to govern themselves. As in Georgia.