Georgia’s ‘foreign agents’ law could be dropped in return for US support bill

<span>Protesters have demonstrated against the ‘foreign agents’ law for the last month, claiming the government is realigning the country with Moscow.</span><span>Photograph: David Mdzinarishvili/EPA</span>
Protesters have demonstrated against the ‘foreign agents’ law for the last month, claiming the government is realigning the country with Moscow.Photograph: David Mdzinarishvili/EPA

A “foreign agents” law that has brought hundreds of thousands of people on to the streets of Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi could be dropped in return for a package of economic and security support from Washington, the ruling party has hinted.

In response to a draft bill tabled in the US Congress that would open up talks on a trade deal in return for fresh commitments on civil rights, the governing Georgian Dream party said in a statement that it would need to see progress on such promises within a year.

The party’s ruling body, known as the political council, issued a statement on Tuesday in which it insisted that the government would not be blackmailed but also signalled that a way out of the crisis was possible if there was swift progress on preferential trade terms and visa liberalisation.

“Our partners can significantly rearrange their relationships within a year maximum,” the party said. “If they realise this, the relations will be settled very quickly, but if they continue to act in the same approach towards Georgia, it will damage both Georgia and America’s interests.”

Under the new Georgian law on transparency of foreign influence, which passed its third and final reading last Tuesday, civil society organisations and media receiving more than 20% of their revenues from abroad will be obliged to register as “organisations serving the interests of a foreign power”.

The legislation is regarded as a copy of a law introduced in Russia in 2012 that was used as a tool for repressing those with sympathies to the west.

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The EU has warned that the legislation will be an obstacle to membership of the bloc while the US has said that the law and a recent outbreak of anti-western rhetoric was in danger of turning Georgia into an “adversary rather than a partner”.

Protesters have massed outside Georgia’s parliament for the last month, claiming that the former Soviet state’s government is realigning the country with Moscow, three decades after it became an independent republic.

Georgia’s president, Salome Zourabichvili, has vetoed the law but the governing party has the votes to disregard her intervention.

This week, the South Carolina Republican congressman Joe Wilson tabled a bill that would start talks with Georgia on a “a robust preferential trade regime” and liberalisation of the visa regime for Georgian citizens in return for “significant and sustained progress towards reinvigorating its democracy”.

The US defence department would also be mandated to explore the “provision of security and defense equipment ideally suited for territorial defense against Russian aggression and concomitant training, maintenance, and operations support elements”.

The political council of Georgian Dream, the political founded and run by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s, responded in florid language in a statement on Tuesday that nevertheless hinted at an openness to compromise.

“Since 2020, NGOs have already tried to organise a revolution in this country twice and we could not wait for the third attempt,” the council said. “This law is not a subject of trade for us, but an effective way to protect Georgia’s sovereignty, and we cannot trade with the sovereignty of the country.”

The council added that it would be interested in a trade deal and visa liberalisation as well as further economic support. It went on to demand the opening of EU accession talks by the end of the year and assurances that NGOs in Georgia would put aside “revolutionary plans”.

“If they do all this, then there will be no need for [the] NGO transparency law and no more unjust statements to answer,” the party said.