Near Abroad Politics

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Earlier this year, Georgian civilians clashed with riot police in Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet republic in the Caucasus, after the pro-Russian government revived the so-called “foreign agents” law designed to crack down on nonprofits, journalists and other civil society groups that receive international funding. The law is clearly based on a Russian law designed to suppress political dissent, wrote the Royal United Services Institute.

It’s known locally as the “Russian Law 2.0”.

As World Politics Review explained, the protesters were largely pro-Western locals who want Georgia to join the European Union. The government officials they were criticizing were in the ruling Georgian Dream party under Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze. This sharp split between East and West has thrown Georgia into crisis before upcoming parliamentary elections on Oct. 26.

While officially saying he supports Georgia joining the EU and NATO, Kobakhidze has not supported Western sanctions designed to punish Russia for invading Ukraine, reported Al Jazeera. The founder of Georgian Dream, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who wields enormous influence in the country, has never condemned the invasion, either.

Instead, the country has welcomed thousands of Russian businesses and expats, and may be helping Russia evade Western sanctions, wrote local Georgian news outlet, Commersant.

This is all part of a recent trend, says Atlantic Council researcher Eto Buziashvili. “(The new law) marks the first time in Georgia’s history that the governing political party has declared a shift in the nation’s Euro-Atlantic foreign policy alignment … pivoting Georgia’s foreign policy, potentially leading to the abandonment of the country’s NATO and EU aspirations.”

Polls show, meanwhile, that 80 percent of Georgians want to join the EU, an aspiration reflected in the constitution. Many also remember how Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, leaving troops that still occupy around a fifth of Georgian territory, around the same proportion that Russia now holds in Ukraine, CNN noted.

Writing in Politico, Hudson Institute fellow Luke Coffey argued that Georgia’s ties to ancient Greek myths, its role in early Christian history, and its experience under Russian rule made the country naturally antipathetic to Moscow. “Georgia’s future lies in Europe, as its past is rooted in Western civilization,” wrote Coffey. “The second is that Georgia can never trust Russia.”

Capturing that sentiment, Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, who once led the liberal-leaning, pro-EU Way of Georgia party, vetoed the foreign agents law, writing on X that “Georgia will not surrender to resovietisation!!” But lawmakers overrode her veto.

EU leaders also oppose the foreign agents law, saying they fear Kobakhidze will use it to meddle in the elections, according to Euractiv. In response, they have put on hold so-called accession talks in Brussels that are the precondition to joining the EU. Analysts at the European Council on Foreign Relations called for EU officials to consider withholding funding, too.

Kobakhidze appears undaunted. He has leveraged Georgian Dream’s control of parliament to propose “sweeping restrictions on LGBTQ+ freedoms and rights” based on similar Russian laws that claim to espouse traditional values, for example, Voice of America reported.

It’s just part and parcel of staying in power: As the president noted, since the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgia has often seen checks and balances fail because ruling parties tried to bend the rules to stay in power.

“With every successive regime, we have returned again and again to a single-party system that controls more and more institutions,” Zurabishvili said.

Still, Georgia may get a little help from the US: Georgia officials responsible for pushing forward the foreign agents law or cracking down on protesters could face asset freezes and travel bans under a bill to be presented to the US Congress, Politico reported.

The Georgian Dream party has “increasingly and regrettably embraced a policy of accommodation with the Russian Federation” as part of an “increasingly illiberal turn,” according to the draft bill, adding that Georgia “has openly attacked US and other Western democracy promotion organizations as well as local and international civil society while embracing increased ties with Russia in particular, as well as China.”

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