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The Real Stakes of Georgia’s Foreign Agent Law

Western powers are dismayed that their own influence operations will be hampered.

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The Georgian parliament is on the verge of passing a law requiring certain civil society organizations and media outlets to register as “foreign agents.” The law has enraged Georgia’s opposition parties, and protestors have taken to the streets for weeks against what some are calling a “Russian law.” The United States has expressed concern, as has the European Union.

On the surface, it feels like a story straight out of the 1990s or early 2000s: a former Soviet republic breaking free of Russian influence and joining the fraternity of free nations. It’s a feel-good story. Unfortunately, it does not reflect reality, and the truth highlights serious issues with how the West reacts to decisions they do not like made by democratically elected governments.

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For one, the government in Georgia looks nothing like the communist dictatorships which were ended by past color revolutions. The ruling Georgia Dream party was fairly elected in 2012, fairly re-elected in 2016, and fairly re-elected for a third time in 2020. Although international observers found no issues of widespread fraud in the 2020 elections, the opposition still claimed that the results were fraudulent; the resulting political crisis was solved when Georgia Dream agreed to new parliamentary elections if they received less than 43 percent of the vote in the 2021 local elections. They received about 46 percent. Recent polling for October’s upcoming parliamentary election have them still clearly leading the opposition.

The accusation that the law in question is based on Russia’s foreign agent law also does not withstand scrutiny. Russia’s law, a genuinely abominable piece of legislation, has been used to effectively ban any organization which has a vague connection to the outside world. An organization receiving any foreign funding—even if a foreigner bought a t-shirt off of the organization’s website—can be targeted. This has had the effect of silencing any criticism of Vladimir Putin.

The legislation pending before the Georgian parliament, in contrast, reasonably requires any civil service or political organization to register as a foreign agent if at least 20 percent of its funding comes from abroad—substantially different from Russia's law. It is far from dictatorial to block foreign influence in a nation’s civil society. If the America First Policy Institute, aligned with Donald Trump, was to spend money on advertisements in the upcoming European Union parliamentary elections in support of right-wing parties, it is likely that progressive-minded Europeans would be outraged.

One needs not even undertake hypotheticals. Wafer-thin evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election so disturbed Democrats that, even today, many believe that Donald Trump only won the election because of Putin’s hackers. 

Both parties in the U.S. have rightfully questioned China-funded Confucius Institutes on university campuses; the U.S. also has its own foreign agent legislation, because it would be a dereliction of the duty to protect one’s country to not have foreign agent legislation. It is not entirely clear why Georgia’s legislation in particular, therefore, is incompatible with Western values.

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Nor has there been any serious attempt to argue why foreign organizations should be able to influence Georgia’s internal affairs without being labeled as such. One almost gets the feeling that, after the three-time victory of Georgia Dream—a West-skeptical party—the West is hoping that their NGOs can help to turn the tide.

More than anything else, this brings to the fore issues with how liberal internationalists react to democratic decision-making when it contrasts with their preferred policies. The protests, both within Georgia and from Western capitals, are not against a fraudulently elected government, nor is it one which is attempting to enact dictatorial “emergency powers” or is killing protestors. This is about a democratically elected government doing something that a minority of protestors do not like. It bears repeating that, again, the ruling Georgia Dream party is set comfortably to win the coming parliamentary elections.

Which, of course, highlights the main problem here. The protestors have a way to stop this law: the ballot box. Georgia’s media is extremely polarized, but it is not devoid of opposition voices. Should Georgia Dream win through fraud, that would be one thing. But that is not the case for the moment. Instead, the government is attempting to pass a law which does not violate the Georgian constitution with a majority they won without fraud.

By choosing which decisions taken by a democratically elected government are acceptable based on whether they line up with the West’s preferred policies, while at the same time talking about the sanctity of democracy, the liberal internationalists expose rank hypocrisy. Brussels and Washington seem frustrated that the Georgians keep electing the Georgia Dream party, and instead of accepting that are attempting to portray it as a dictatorship-in-waiting.

But when it comes to democracy, one either accepts democratic results or one does not. Because there is a word for only being allowed to have one opinion: dictatorship.