Op-ed | EC Must be Frank with Georgians

The Georgian Dream still pretends to pursue the path toward the European Union while ramming through the legislation that is incompatible with opening the negotiations. The Commission should not let this ambiguity linger. Georgians deserve to know the truth.

Beka Kobakhidze is the Chair of the MA Program in Modern History of Georgia and a Professor at Ilia State University

Spring 2024 witnessed depleting foreign military aid to Ukraine, Russia gaining the initiative on the battlefield, and the almost simultaneous initiation of the “foreign agents’ law” in Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, and Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia. The law that was adopted in the first hearing by the majority in the Georgian Parliament labeled any organization receiving over 20% of its funding from abroad as an “organization pursuing the interests of a foreign power.” In Russia and Belarus, such laws were initially adopted and then gradually but steadily hardened to cover private individuals receiving funding from foreign donors. Effectively eliminating civil society, NGOs, and independent media in those countries, such legislation became a marker of extending Russian influence abroad.

Putin perceives foreign donors and civil liberties as a Western Trojan horse at his doorstep. It’s a hallmark of authoritarian regimes to control the life choices of individual citizens, leaving them reliant solely on the government’s goodwill. Without international NGOs and donors, as crony capitalism runs rampant and most citizens are impoverished, most independent NGOs, media, and academics are left without funds and cease to exist. The “foreign agents’ law” serves as a tool to squeeze out the “Western influence” from Russia’s “near abroad” and makes authoritarian regimes comfortable, freeing them of all scrutiny.

If someone was not convinced in 2008 and in 2014, Russia’s unprovoked invasion and annexation of Ukrainian lands in 2022 unmasked Putin’s aspiration to resurrect the Russian Empire. Along the imperial borderlands from the Baltic Sea to Central Asia lie Russia’s former colonies, where freedom diminishes the further east one travels. In Central Asia, there are five states: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. All but Kyrgyzstan have no NGOs, but that last holdout, too, adopted the foreign agents’ law several weeks ago, and local civil organizations started to shut down.

In the South Caucasus, Azerbaijan has a well-established authoritarian regime. Both Georgia and its occupied region of Abkhazia introduced the foreign agents’ law nearly simultaneously with Kyrgyzstan. By solidifying control over Georgia, Russia could extend its influence to Armenia, which, after losing the Karabagh region largely due to Russian inaction, has been shifting the weight of its foreign policy from Russia to the West. Belarus remains Russia’s most loyal authoritarian client state, while in Ukraine and Moldova, Putin seeks to achieve his goals through military means. If Putin is successful in his latest bid to consolidate the neighborhood, only NATO and EU member Baltic States—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania— will remain beyond Russia’s control, at least for now.

Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine and the foreign agents’ law in Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, and breakaway Abkhazia are interconnected components of Russia’s grand strategy to re-colonize imperial borderland and resurrect the Empire. It would be naive to believe that the governments of Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and self-proclaimed Abkhazia independently decided to introduce identical laws nearly simultaneously. Since its introduction in Georgia, odious figures like Sergey Lavrov, Dmitry Medvedev, Dmitry Peskov, Viacheslav Volodin, and ideologist philosopher Alexander Dugin have voiced support for the law.

Conversely, the US Department of State, the EU, and individual European states have strongly criticized it, warning that it will impede Georgia’s path to EU membership. The European Parliament even adopted a resolution calling for sanctions against Georgia’s informal ruler, oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, and reconsideration of the visa-free regime with Georgia. Amidst US political polarization, 14 senators penned a bipartisan letter to Georgian PM Irakli Kobakhidze, employing the harshest tone ever heard from Washington, DC, toward Georgia.

Nevertheless, the Georgian government and the ruling Georgian Dream party remain resolute in their decision to pass the law. Concurrently, the Georgian parliament adopted legislation permitting the transfer of money from offshore accounts to Georgia without taxation, potentially benefiting Ivanishvili and other Russian oligarchs, whose offshore assets are increasingly targeted.

Georgian Dream was well aware from the experience of March 2023, when they first introduced the law but were forced to withdraw it, that its re-introduction would face fierce domestic resistance, especially among the youth. Despite credible polls suggesting Georgian Dream would win the 2024 parliamentary elections, despite the opposition being fractured, they chose to align with Kyrgyzstan and occupied Abkhazia in trying to force the law through. This jeopardizes their electoral prospects and sabotages Georgia’s EU aspirations, as over 80% of the population supports EU membership. Why did they not wait until after the elections to introduce the law?

There’s no denying Russia’s influence behind Georgian Dream’s decisions. Just as before in Russia and Belarus, adopting this law is not the endgame. It is but the first step toward eradicating Georgia’s vibrant civil society, academic liberties, and media freedom. Georgian Dream recognizes that 80% of Georgians support EU membership and oppose reintegration into the Russian sphere of influence. Before re-joining the Russian orbit, their determination must be broken.

After the law is passed, Georgia’s educated youth, currently protesting in the streets of Tbilisi, may face exile, as seen in Russia, Belarus, Venezuela, Central Asian countries, and elsewhere.

The ruling party tries to muddle the waters by aligning its messaging with the electoral reality of pro-European consensus. It invents double-speak slogans like “To Europe with honor!” or “To Europe on our own terms!” It tries to manipulate the less informed population, including EU membership supporters, with cheap nationalism. The ruling party claims the EU will inevitably open accession negotiations with Georgia, which leaves many in Georgia confused.

The EU Commission knows that Georgia has no European future with this law and policy in place. While the EU Parliament has said that much in its non-binding resolution, the EU Commission keeps mumbling. This is not the way to go.

The Commission should unequivocally tell Georgian people the truth: with this law and policy in place, Georgia will never become an EU member, and there will be no progress in the accession process. This would empower Georgians to make an informed choice between the Georgian Dream and EU membership, with the many privileges they came to appreciate, like visa-free travel.

The views and opinions expressed on Civil.ge opinions pages are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Civil.ge editorial staff


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