US Senators Warn Georgia That ‘Foreign Agents’ Law Could Disrupt Relations


(RFE/RL) — A bipartisan group of 14 U.S. senators warned in a letter to Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze that the Caucasus nation’s plan to reintroduce a “Russian-style foreign agents law” could lead to a change in U.S. policy toward Tbilisi.

In the letter — sent on April 26 and obtained by Voice of America (VOA) — the senators said they are “increasingly concerned that Georgia’s transatlantic aspirations are being undermined.”

The letter came after the U.S. Helsinki Commission called on the ruling Georgian Dream party to withdraw the “foreign agent” bill and urged Tbilisi “to divert from this destructive path.”

Western governments and rights groups have condemned Georgia’s controversial “foreign agents” bill, which many say is a replica of a similar Russian law used to muzzle dissent in that country.

Thousands of Georgians have taken to the streets to protest the bill after the ruling party gave an initial green light to it, despite an outbreak of scuffles in parliament.

The legislation also sparked mass protests when first introduced last year — causing the government to withdraw the bill.

Mamuka Mdinaradze, leader of the parliamentary faction of Georgian Dream, this month said the party planned to reintroduce the bill, which would oblige noncommercial organizations and media outlets that receive foreign funding and who are engaged in broadly defined “political” activities to report their activities to the authorities.

It would also introduce wide oversight powers by the authorities and potential criminal sanctions for undefined criminal offenses.

Georgian Dream has said the new bill is identical to the one withdrawn last year, except for one change: The term “foreign agent” would be replaced by the words “an organization pursuing the interests of a foreign power.”

The U.S. senators in their letter rejected Georgian government claims that the law is equivalent to a U.S. law that requires U.S. citizens to register as foreign agents if they represent the interests of a foreign party in the United States.

“We must also make it clear that the reintroduced foreign agents’ law does not mirror any U.S. law and would be used to silence the civil society and media that play a significant role in advancing Georgia’s democratic institutions,” they wrote in the letter.

Former Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, chairman of Georgia Dream, on April 27 insisted that the senators’ letter was “based on misconceptions.”

Garibashvili told reporters that it was crucial to maintain communications with “European and American partners” so that “those misunderstandings are eliminated.”

Georgian Dream officials have insisted the legislation is aimed at bringing transparency in a time of high tensions.

“Our country, unfortunately, is still facing challenges. The main challenge is foreign occupation of 20 percent of our country. Russian troops stand on the occupied territory, although there are also other risks in the country,” Garibashvili said.

Anti-Russian sentiment can often be strong in Georgia. Russian troops still control around one-fifth of Georgian territory, most of it taken during a lightning war in 2008 that was ostensibly about breakaway efforts in two northeastern regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The final reading of the bill is scheduled to be debated on May 17. Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili told the BBC that she will veto it if it’s approved in its final reading.

Zurabishvili said that her major concern is the fact that the bill in question is “exactly a copy of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s law.”

However, Zurabishvili said the ruling Georgian Dream party has enough lawmakers to override her if she does use her veto.

The European Union’s ambassador to Georgia has criticized the introduction of the bill, saying it’s “incompatible” with the values of the bloc Tbilisi is looking to join.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) also assailed moves to introduce the law.

Georgia has been vocal in its drive to join the EU, which extended candidate status to Tbilisi late last year after the government recalled the first attempt at introducing the law following public protests.

EU officials have said that if Georgia adopts the bill as law, it would disrupt the nation’s membership hopes.

The EU and NATO are keen to maintain relations with Georgia and move it further away from Russian influence, but recent moves have caused concern in Western capitals.

Most opinion polls in Georgia indicate strong support from the public for closer ties with Western institutions.


RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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