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Why is Georgian Dream reviving the foreign agent law?

5 April 2024
Illustration: Tamar Shvelidze/OC Media

Georgia’s ruling party has promised to pass a controversial ‘foreign agents’ law a year after it was withdrawn following mass street protests. Coming just six months before parliamentary elections, why is the ruling party making such a risky move?

On the morning of 3 April, Georgian Dream’s parliamentary leader Mamuka Mdinaradze announced that the government would be bringing back the law — dubbed the ‘Russian law’ by critics — that would target civil society organisations and the media and likely torpedo the country’s European integration. 

Their initial dropping of the bill in March 2023 was seen as a victory for civil society and a humiliating defeat for Georgian Dream. They made strong assurances at the time that they would not attempt to revive the legislation. The reasons for their sudden about-face now remain unclear. 

The ruling party expected to be the frontrunner in the October parliamentary elections, with opposition parties at best hoping to gain enough seats to form an anti–Georgian Dream coalition. 

Consequently, the decision to renege on their strongly worded promise and return to a dramatically unpopular bill has confused both domestic and foreign observers, as an evident gamble that runs the risk of significantly hurting the ruling party in a crucial year. As Mdinaradze put it in March of last year, ‘the public doesn’t let these things slide like that’.

Here, we lay out a range of possible motivations for the ruling party’s move, as put forward by observers, politicians, and our own team. 

1. Ivanishvili believes Russia is undefeatable 

According to Davit Berdzenishvili, a former ally of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream from the Republican Party, among the key reasons behind Georgian Dream’s gamble is Ivanishvili’s perception that Putin is winning the war in Ukraine. 


Since 2020, Ivanishvili’s former employee and then–PM Irakli Gharibashvili has frequently repeated Kremlin rhetoric regarding Ukraine, including blaming Ukraine and NATO for ‘provoking’ Russia to invade the country. Gharibashvili has been widely seen as one of Ivanishvili’s close confidants, who publicly reflects the billionaire’s opinions. 

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili also appears to share Berdzenishvili’s view. In a November interview with Le Monde, the President described Ivanishvili as a person ‘unable to imagine’ Russia losing the war and therefore seeking to ‘adapt’ to Russia’s victory in advance. 

The law was publicly termed ‘the Russian law’ for its resemblance to Russian legislation used to crush civil society in the country, but might also serve to curry favour with the Kremlin by both more tightly controlling civil society in the country and moving Georgia away from its Western allies.  

2. Direct instructions from the Kremlin

Some, including former Public Defender Nino Lomjaria and former Ivanishvili ally Gia Khukhashvili, have gone further in suggesting that the government may be acting on direct instructions from the Russian Government. 

As Lomjaria asserted, Georgian Dream was tasked by Russia to sabotage its move towards Europe, after becoming ‘too close’. 

According to Khukhashvili, there’s a ‘fairly high probability’ that enacting the controversial law is a ‘sort of obligation’ the government have taken upon themselves at some point in order to ‘synchronise’ governance in Georgia with Russia. 

In the case of both Ukraine and Georgia, Russia’s leaders have repeatedly claimed that the countries were free to choose their foreign policy direction, save for joining NATO. However, experts on Russia have largely agreed that the Kremlin has been equally sensitive to EU expansion, as highlighted by the steps taken by Ukraine’s president and Russia’s ally Viktor Yanukovych in 2013, who chose ties with Russia over the European Union, prompting the ‘Revolution of Dignity’ in 2014. 

And Russian politicians have weighed in in support of Georgia’s ruling party, with Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov suggesting that the Georgian opposition needed to understand the ‘absurdity’ of labelling the new law a ‘Russian project’.

3. A calculated distraction

According to Herman Sabo, an MP from the opposition Girchi — New Political Centre group, reintroducing the bill is a calculated move aimed at distracting the public from issues threatening to hinder their reelection. 

As Sabo wrote on Facebook, the ruling party failed to polarise the political field with their draft law against queer ‘propaganda’, thereby failing to distract the public from the social and economic topics on which the largest opposition party, the formerly ruling United National Movement, have remained focused.  

According to Sabo, Georgian Dream understood that expected altercations in the parliament and street protests over their legal initiatives could backfire, but that this had been judged an ‘acceptable risk’. 

Since March, local queer advocacy groups, as well as larger human rights organisations, have not engaged with the ruling party over their homophobic bill. Political groups have also dismissed Georgian Dream’s repeated invitations to discuss it as a distraction, and stuck to their campaign issues. 

Liberal group Shame appear to agree. On 3 April, they stated that both the homophobic bill and the draft foreign agent law were Georgian Dream’s attempt to divert attention from their failure to address issues, including lack of reforms and poverty.

4. ‘Destroying’ election observer groups in the run-up to elections

Giorgi Gakharia, chair of the opposition For Georgia party and former prime minister, has claimed that the motive behind Georgian Dream’s repeated attempt to pass the foreign agent law is to ‘completely destroy trust’ in national and international election monitoring groups to prepare for public reactions to ‘manipulated’ election results. 

In recent years, the Georgian Dream-led government has escalated its criticism of Western-supported local democracy groups, including watchdog groups like ISFED and Transparency International — Georgia, as well as their donors. 

Weeks before the ruling party brought back the foreign agent bill, the government and the media associated with them intensified their criticism of the supposedly ‘opaque’ financial aid provided by major Western donor organisations. 

A few days prior to announcing the reintroduction of the bill, parliamentary speaker Shalva Papuashvili blasted donor organisations, including the EU-funded European Endowment for Democracy, for ‘illegally financing’ local opposition groups. 

On 4 April, opposition Lelo MP Salome Samadashvili similarly argued that the government sought to curb the inflow of foreign funds to hurt local observer groups. 

‘This is something that Vladimir Putin and Lukashenka did’, said Samadashvili.

5. Passing the law by scaremongering over a ‘second Maidan’ in Georgia

Giorgi Shaishmelashvili, Head of Research at Civic IDEA, hypothesised that Georgian Dream’s ultimate goal might be to pass the contentious law while using a strategy to intimidate Georgians with the threat of unrest or even war to quash potential street protests. 

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the ruling party have actively pushed a conspiracy theory that local opposition groups and Ukraine’s leadership were eager to drag Georgia into a ‘second front’ of war with Russia.

Several months before the ruling party announced their plan to reintroduce the foreign agent bill in parliament, Georgia’s State Security Service claimed they were investigating a supposed coup being plotted by a group including Ukraine’s deputy director of counterintelligence and Georgian volunteers fighting against Russia in Ukraine. 

This was quickly followed by pro-Russia extremist group Alt Info launching a campaign to stop a Ukrainian-style ‘Maidan’ revolution in Georgia, and the parliament majority amending the Law on Assemblies and Demonstrations to curb the use of tents at street demonstrations. 

The party’s leaders have also repeatedly connected street protests with an attempt to stage revolution in Georgia, in October 2023 accusing the US state aid agency of attempting to provoke violent revolution in Georgia. 

6. Georgian Dream is convinced they’ve changed the public’s perception of the ‘Russian law’

OC Media’s founder and director, Mariam Nikuradze, suggested that the government may believe they have succeeded in shifting public opinion in favour of the legislation. 

Even when asserting that they had no intention to revive the foreign agent law, Georgian Dream fiercely defended the need for such legislation. Following its failure, the ruling party’s leaders have repeatedly insisted that foreign embassies and local opposition and civil society groups had misled Georgians into thinking their bill was modelled on Russia’s law. 

Other observers have suggested that the government is banking on the public’s attitude to protesting the law having changed. On 10 March 2023, thousands celebrated a ‘victory’, having driven the parliamentary majority to fail the unpopular law after two days of demonstrations. In the days following, however, two young protesters were detained, one of whom, Lazare Grigoriadis, is still awaiting his verdict in pre-trial detention. 

As OC Media’s staff writer Tata Shoshiashvili notes, the ruling party may believe that young people who protested the first time around have been intimidated by the prospect of a lengthy trial, and possibly lengthy prison sentence. Their fear of taking to the streets may also have been compounded by the brutality that police demonstrated on the bill’s first outing, and the draconian measures and hefty administrative fines levied against protesters in the year since. 

[Read more: Tbilisi court convicts protester ‘for holding blank sheet of paper’]

7. Georgian Dream seeking to overturn its defeats 

Tamta Mikeladze of the Tbilisi-based Social Justice Center suggests that Georgian Dream may be seeking a victory after a series of embarrassing political losses, both practical and symbolic, and victories that the ruling party cannot claim as its own. This, she believes, includes being forced to retract the ‘Russian law’ last year, as well as massive celebrations over the Georgian national football team qualifying for the European Championship for the first time in history this March. 

Some Georgian commentators, like Nino Samkharadze of the Georgian Institute of Politics, took note of the government officials’ attempt to associate themselves with the sporting victory. 

Government officials were constantly visible and close to popular Georgian sportspeople during the celebrations. Georgian Dream heavyweight and Tbilisi mayor Kakha Kaladze went as far as suggesting that the fact that his party was in power had played a role in the football victory.

However, in footage widely shared on social media, both Kaladze and Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze were booed by crowds when they took the stage to congratulate those present. 

Mikeladze suggested that, aside from the funding of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the government’s hold on power is quite precarious, leading it to seek to polarise and fragment society. 

‘The political system of Georgian Dream builds its own power by weakening the power of the people’, suggested Mikeladze. ‘Breaking, weakening, [and] demoralising us is their only source of power.’

8. Georgian Dream is preparing for Western sanctions against Ivanishvili

In April, the UK tabloid the Daily Mail reported that Bidzina Ivanishvili may be preparing a shelter for himself and his assets in Brazil in case he faces international sanctions by Western entities for allying with Russia.

Discussions regarding Ivanishvili’s potential sanctioning are long-running, with the European Parliament backing the idea in the summer of 2022. Several months later, Ukraine was the first, and so far only country to sanction several of Ivanishvili’s relatives. 

Among several priorities set by the EU for Georgia to greenlight accession talks with it remains ‘deoligarchisation’, which most independent analysts agree is a reference to Ivanishvili’s informal sway over Georgian politics. Last December, the former PM unexpectedly returned to politics by becoming Georgian Dream’s chair, despite assurances in early 2021 that he was retiring for good. Some understood this move as his attempt to at least partially formalise his involvement in top government decisions.

Read in Armenian on CivilNet.