Georgia: Resilience in action

15 May, 2024

When protestors took to the streets of Tbilisi first in March 2023 and then again in April 2024 to express their opposition to a draft law on foreign agents, later renamed as the draft law on transparency of foreign influence, which was quickly dubbed as the Russian law, winding its way through parliament, the response of the pro-Kremlin disinformation machine was as swift as it was predictable: the West is trying to incite unrest and provoke a ‘colour revolution’ in Georgia, just as they had in Ukraine in 2014.

The pro-Kremlin voices claim that the non-governmental organisations in Georgia, precisely those groups which the new law was supposed to regulate, are a key tool in this alleged Western scheme for regime change in Georgia. If this disinformation is to be believed, these local activists had used Western funds to plot a revolution. They were using a ‘Hollywood’ script to unseat the government and whip up anti-Russian hysteria by claiming the new foreign agents’ law was inspired by Russian legislation.

Double standards?

In response to widespread dissatisfaction with the draft law and with the seeming turn away from the country’s EU path it represents, legislators from the ruling party Georgian Dream coalition took to the airwaves to deny that the law had anything to do with Russia, and to assert that similar laws had been enacted or were in preparation in a number of EU member states and in Canada, in addition to FARA in the U.S.

‘People are being convinced that the draft law is directed against the Western partners, and Georgia will not be able to join the European Union by adopting this draft law’, a Georgian Dream MP(opens in a new tab) said. ‘This is complete nonsense. Transparency and reporting are one of the most important values for Europe, and this draft law also serves that.’

However, last month High Representative Josep Borrell and the Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi warned in a statement(opens in a new tab) that ‘This law is not in line with EU core norms and values’ and that ‘final adoption of this legislation would negatively impact Georgia’s progress on its EU path’. As a result, the EU called on the Georgian authorities to withdraw the law from parliamentary procedure.

This, in turn, triggered accusations of double standards(opens in a new tab). ‘They are trying to force us not to adopt the same law that the European Union itself initiated’, one legislator said. Another MP described the EU’s call for a retraction(opens in a new tab) as ‘another expression of the double standard of the European bureaucracy, which, given our mutual cooperation, I think is unacceptable’.

In fact, there is no ‘double standard’ because, unlike the ‘foreign agents’ law in Georgia, the proposal for the EU directive on Transparency of Interest Representation(opens in a new tab) supports efforts to counter disinformation and foreign interference primarily from non-democratic countries, and does not stigmatize and discriminate selected entities for receiving foreign funding, but addresses the lobbying activities.

The slinging of rhetorical accusations of ‘double standards’ comes straight from the Kremlin’s disinformation playbook. In the past, it has been employed to try to legitimize the illegal annexation of Crimea, accuse the EU of mistreating Russian ‘journalists’ or excuse the Kremlin’s nuclear sabre rattling, just to name a few examples. Don’t be deceived by this manipulative tactic. It is merely an attempt to distract the audiences and dismiss any legitimate concerns.

‘A plot to drag Georgia into the war’

Pro-Kremlin outlets had a field day lobbying outlandish accusations against the EU and ‘the West’ more broadly. One outlet opined(opens in a new tab): ‘If this law is not adopted, Georgia will not be able to avoid destabilisation, violent change of government and, therefore, Georgia’s involvement in the current war’ in Ukraine. Once again, such conspiratorial accusations are merely a variation of the pro-Kremlin disinformation narrative accusing the West for ‘destabilizing the region’ and preying on people’s fear of war.

Such apocalyptic warnings seem to have had little effect on Georgian people. With tens of thousands(opens in a new tab) taking to the streets for weeks to express their disapproval of the proposed law which has a potential to stifle local watchdogs ahead of upcoming Parliamentary elections in October, it is clear that the Georgian people see these claims as what they are – well-rehearsed Russian-style talking points.

Indeed, the notion that ‘the West’ – the EU, NATO, the US, the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ – or Ukraine want to open a second front against Russia in the South Caucasus is not new. We have documented such baseless accusations of Western interference, alleged designs draw Georgia into a war with Russia and false appeals to Georgian sovereignty also popped up in the spring of 2023 – the previous time the Georgian parliament tried to push through the controversial law. In fact, pro-Kremlin outlets push this notion that ‘the West’ is fomenting ‘colour revolutions’ prepared by Western-funded NGOs in Russia’s neighbourhood in order to encircle Moscow every time they need to discredit democracy and legitimate civic action.

A controversial law

The protestors, as well as many other critics, allege that the Georgian law mirrors a 2012 law in Russia(opens in a new tab) used to crack down on dissent(opens in a new tab) and suppress civic groups and media, and that it could be used to restrict freedom of expression and association(opens in a new tab). The law could furthermore endanger(opens in a new tab) the democratic reforms Georgia needs to undertake in order to join the European Union.

In 2023, a similar wave of protests against a previous attempt to approve the bill forced the withdrawal(opens in a new tab) of the legislation. It has now been reintroduced(opens in a new tab) by the Georgian government, triggering the current wave of protests(opens in a new tab).

It appears to be deeply unpopular(opens in a new tab) among many Georgian citizens, and this time the protests have been backed(opens in a new tab) by a coalition of Georgian opposition parties, as well as civil society organisations and media. Tens of thousands of people of all walks of life representing different generations, many of them being youth, have consistently joined the protests over the past several weeks, and have been met with escalating police violence(opens in a new tab).

Coercion of protesters has also taken on more devious forms of intimidation. For example, prominent leaders of legitimate Georgian civil society organizations and veteran investigative journalists have been targeted by a coordinated intimidation campaign vandalizing their offices with slandering posters(opens in a new tab), labelling them ‘foreign agents’(opens in a new tab). Scores of Georgian citizens have received harassing phone calls from dubious numbers registered both locally and abroad. The recent intimidation tactics at rallies when the most active are dragged into groups of policemen and severely beaten has become commonplace.

Steady in the face of intimidation

It is a sign of a resilient civil society that the Georgian people are not duped by the onslaught of pro-Kremlin disinformation targeting them nor intimidated by authorities’ crackdown on the protests. This is what resilience to disinformation and information manipulation looks like in action.

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