Teona Lavrelashvili, PhD (KU Leuven) Policy Adviser to the ESU/CD&V, Chairwoman of the European Alliance for Georgia
When Georgia was overlooked by the European Council on 23 June 2022 and Moldova and Ukraine were given EU candidate status, but Georgia not, it was a reminder that Georgia’s EU integration path would not be a smooth one. Yet the image of a Georgian woman standing up to a water cannon, waving an EU flag in protest against the proposed ‘foreign agents’ bill, has gone viral around the world, symbolising Georgia’s modern day struggle. With the Georgian, EU and Ukrainian flags all being waved, it reminds the world that the power of the people, the fight to embrace European values, and the spirit of Georgian democracy, cannot and should not be underestimated. In Tbilisi, police used tear gas, water cannon and stun grenades to break up the protests, yet the power of the people, international pressure and political will forced the Georgian government to change its way. Georgia’s ruling party decided to rapidly withdraw its bill on “foreign agents” after days of street protests.
With the proposed and now quickly ‘withdrawn’ controversial ‘foreign agents’ bill, which was backed by the ruling party, Georgia would have taken a further major step backwards. The bill, which would have required non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and independent media who receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad to declare themselves as foreign agents, if passed, would have undoubtedly limited press freedom and suppressed civil society.
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs/Vice President Josep Borrell described the move as “incompatible with EU values and standards.” Quite strikingly, Borrell underlined that the move “goes against Georgia’s stated objective of joining the European Union, as supported by a large majority of Georgian citizens”. The HRVP did not shy away from noting that the bill’s final adoption would have had “serious repercussions” on EU-Georgia relations. These consequences can be harsh – ranging from not granting candidate status (the EU is set to discuss on this in October 2023, following the European Commission’s Enlargement report), to suspending financial assistance, freezing Georgia’s participation in the Horizon projects, or even revoking the EU membership perspective which was granted to Georgia in June 2022. Borrell welcomed the withdrawal of the bill, stating on Twitter, “the announcement to withdraw the draft law on ‘transparency of foreign influence’ is a good sign. Now, concrete legal steps need to follow,” he wrote, pointing to legal ambiguities as to whether the law remains a possibility.
The popular reaction to the draft law underlined the notable strength of the EU’s soft power in Georgia. Despite an absence of immediate membership prospects, more than 80% of Georgia’s population supports Georgia’s European path, which is also enshrined in the country’s constitution. Fearing a possible U-turn in support of its EU path, thousands of people took to the streets of Tbilisi to protest.
So what more could be done by the EU? First, the EU should continue to stress that the draft laws undermine EU values, and should clearly articulate its conditionality principle with regard to any backward steps on freedom of the press or civil society.
Second, the EU should recognise the model and shine the spotlight on who is behind it. Similar legislation was adopted in Russia in 2012, and was used to harass human rights activists and critical news organisations. In recent months, legislators in both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have proposed similar media laws, most likely influenced by the Russian prototype, giving the government new authority, such as the power to shut down media outlets.
Third, the EU should strengthen its political, diplomatic and non-formal channels to facilitate the dialogue process among the political and civic actors, as well as improve the methods used to support the democratic processes in the country.
Among the twelve key recommendations issued by the European Commission in June 2022, the draft laws on ‘transparency of foreign influence’ undermined at least two of them. First, the issue of the need for Georgia to undertake greater efforts to guarantee a free, professional, pluralistic and independent media environment would have been severely weakened by the foreign agents law. Second, the European Commission recommends that Georgia swiftly move to strengthen the protection of human rights of vulnerable groups, including by bringing perpetrators and instigators of violence to justice more effectively. This draft law would have done exactly the opposite by labelling many of them as ‘foreign agents.’
More widely, the way former President Mikheil Saakashvili is being treated remains a litmus test of the Georgian government’s commitment to European values as underlined by the European Parliament. The Georgian authorities have a responsibility to ensure the health and well-being of Mr Saakashvili, to provide him with adequate medical treatment, and to respect his fundamental rights and personal dignity, in line with the country’s constitution and international commitments.
Georgia is a relatively young democracy. It saw the peaceful transition of power in 2012, and this must continue if Georgia is to make progress. The recent moves by the governing party could have turned Georgia from being the rose of the South Caucasus and the eastern neighbourhood to a thorny Russian thistle. Now it is time for the EU to support the Georgian people, youth and civic actors with renewed efforts and ways to prevent Georgia’s dream of EU membership from turning into a nightmare.