The Russian-style foreign agent law currently being pushed through the Georgian Parliament could spell the beginning of the end for Georgia’s experiment with democracy. Only decisive action, in Georgia and from abroad, can prevent Georgia’s descent into authoritarianism.
Unlike some opposition-aligned Georgian media outlets, OC Media has in the past refrained from throwing around labels like ‘pro-Russian’, or ‘authoritarian’, when describing the Georgian Government under the governing Georgian Dream party.
Even when signs of this started to show — such as the invitation to Russian MP Sergey Gavrilov to address parliament from the speaker’s tribune, or the party’s capture of the judiciary — we saw that the ruling party, whether out of genuine conviction or populism, was still pursuing the public’s overwhelming desire to move closer to, and eventually join the EU.
But what we are witnessing now is hard to describe any other way.
Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the party has taken a radically anti-Western turn.
If a foreign agent law borrowed wholesale from Vladimir Putin’s Russia is allowed to come into force, it may well represent a point of no return.
The law is unambiguously designed to demonise and discredit Georgia’s vibrant civil society and a media which, whatever its flaws, holds the government to account. In fact, even before its passage, officials have begun to do just that.
The government has used arguments identical to those of Russian officials in its attempts to convince people it is harmless. Meanwhile, it has barely even attempted to make the case that Georgian civil society suffers from a lack of financial transparency.
The current bill is already more extensive than Russia’s own foreign agent law when it was first passed in 2012— the media only began to be included in the Russian law in 2017. The Russian law was subsequently toughened to wipe out the country’s civil society, a fate that now awaits Georgia.
When the Russian law was passed, the Russian public, civil society, and the international community failed to stop it. It could be argued that it was not clear where exactly it would lead.
There is no such excuse now.
OC Media, along with 63 other media organisations registered in Georgia, has vowed not to comply with the law. This puts us at risk of receiving crippling fines, or if one version of the bill being discussed passes — prison time.
But it must be resisted at every level, in Georgia, and among its allies in the West, who have the power to stop this before it is too late.
This is not yet happening. There is a logic among some in Western policy-making circles that being too harsh on the Georgian Government could risk ‘losing Georgia’. This is a mistake. It is absolutely clear that the West has already lost the current Georgian Government, but it has not yet lost its people.
There are countless memes mocking the EU’s expressions of concern (this time, they said the draft law ‘raises serious concerns’). What the EU and the West more broadly must now do is lay out in plain terms what the law’s passage would mean.
The EU has said that the draft law’s adoption would be ‘inconsistent with’ Georgia’s wish to join the EU. But such language couched in diplomatic niceties cannot be effective in enabling the Georgian public to make informed choices.
The EU should make absolutely clear — loudly and publicly — that the law’s passage would immediately end Georgia’s EU application process, until such time as it was revoked.
The US should make clear that the passage of this law — a descent into authoritarianism — would lead to an immediate end to military support.
The Georgian public, who have been unwavering in their desire to join the global family of democracies, deserve to know the truth — that the passage of such a law would inevitably make Georgia a pariah in the eyes of the West.
Failing to act decisively now would be a betrayal of the Georgian people and their aspirations.