GEO

Georgian Resilience: Uniting Against the Foreign Agents Bill

This case study was developed by CAT alumni and human rights lawyer Eko Mamaladze for the Centre for Training and Consultancy (CTC).

Introduction

In recent years, the concept of democracy has been tested and scrutinized on a global scale, as nations grapple with the complex interplay of free speech, foreign influence and national sovereignty. Georgia, a country at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, in March, 2023 found itself at the center of a contentious debate with the introduction of the Foreign Agents Bill, a legislative proposal that sought to regulate the activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs)[1] and their interactions with foreign entities. This paper delves into the heart of Georgian civil society’s response to this bill, exploring the dynamics of the protests that erupted in opposition to what many sad as a potential threat to democratic values and fundamental freedoms.

This case study seeks to shed light on the multifaceted aspects of the Georgian protests against the Foreign Agents Bill. It will explore the historical context that set the stage for these protests, the key actors and organizations involved, the strategies employed in mobilizing public opinion, and the impact of these demonstrations on the government’s decision-making process. Furthermore, this study will analyze the broader implications of this social movement for Georgia’s democracy and its standing in the international arena.

In examining the Georgian protests against the Foreign Agents Bill, this paper contributes to the broader discourse on the role of civil society in safeguarding democratic principles. Through a comprehensive exploration of this critical episode in Georgia’s political landscape, the paper aims to gain insights into the resilience of democratic values and the power of citizen activism in the face of legislative challenges. By examining the dynamics of this protest movement, the paper aims to shed light on the factors that contributed to its success, resulting in the withdrawal of the Foreign Agents Bill and draw valuable lessons that can inform and inspire similar movements around the world. This case study also underscores the importance of defending democratic values, civil liberties and the role of civil society in a rapidly evolving political landscape.

Background Story

The geopolitical landscape in Eastern Europe becomes apparent, as nations such as Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova strive for strengthened connections with the European Union. This is driven by their reaction to heightened regional security concerns resulting from Russian aggression in Ukraine[2] and their ambition to achieve deeper integration with Western organizations. In February, 2022 Georgia applied for EU membership[3] together with Ukraine and Moldova days after Russia invaded Ukraine. In June, 2022 EU leaders granted formal candidate status to Kyiv and Chisinau but said Tbilisi must implement a number of reforms first,[4] meaning that the European Union is ready to grant the status of candidate country to Georgia once the twelve priorities specified in the Commission’s opinion on Georgia’s membership application have been addressed.[5]

Against this background, in March 2023, the government introduced the Foreign Agents Bill, a piece of legislation that would have required non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society groups receiving foreign funding to register as “foreign agents.”  This label carried with it a negative connotation, as it implied that these organizations were acting on behalf of foreign governments, potentially undermining Georgia’s sovereignty. Supporters argued that this legislation was necessary to safeguard national security and protect against foreign interference in domestic affairs. Critics have pointed to a similar law passed in Russia, where all organizations or individuals receiving financial support from abroad, or under some form of “foreign influence”, are declared “foreign agents”. Many believed that this legislation was part of a broader trend in the region, where governments sought to limit the influence of foreign-funded NGOs in domestic affairs. The draft law “On Transparency of Foreign Influence” officially targeted the disclosure of money flows from abroad, but critics feared it was a way for the government to crack down on opposing voices. [6] This stark divergence of perspectives led to a surge in public mobilization and protests across Georgia, with citizens, activists, and international observers closely watching the unfolding events.

Flow of the Campaign

The bill was met with immediate and widespread resistance. The triumph of the Georgian protesters against the Foreign Agents Bill can be attributed to a well-organized and adaptable campaign strategy. Below the developments and key elements of this strategy will be systemized:

Formation of the Opposition Coalition:

At the outset of the campaign, opposition political parties and civil society organizations joined forces, creating a broad-based coalition. This strategic alliance facilitated the consolidation of resources, coordination of messaging, and presented a united front in opposition to the bill.

Public Mobilization and Awareness:

The campaign kicked off with a strong emphasis on mobilizing the public. Through the channels of social media, online campaigns, and town hall meetings, citizens were educated about the potential repercussions of the bill. Social media played a crucial role in mobilizing citizens, with hashtags such as #HandsOffNGOs and #NoToForeignAgentsBill trending. The messaging predominantly centered around the perceived threats to democracy, civil liberties, and the influence of foreign funding in civil society. This messaging resonated with a diverse spectrum of Georgian society. Individual activists, including prominent bloggers and cultural figures, used their platforms to raise awareness and mobilize public opinion.

Mass Protests and Demonstrations:

Strategically planned mass protests were organized in the capital, Tbilisi. Protesters marched through the streets, demanding the withdrawal of the bill. Thousands of people have been massing for days in Tbilisi, to protest against the proposed law. These demonstrations served as a potent visual representation of public dissent. As protestors marched through the streets, carrying banners and chanting slogans, a profound sense of unity and urgency was cultivated. These protests were largely peaceful, but tensions occasionally flared with clashes between demonstrators and the police. The Georgian government’s initial heavy-handed response to the protest exacerbated tensions, resulting in the usage of water cannon and tear gas to disperse thousands of demonstrators in Tbilisi, around the parliament building protesting against a planned ‘’foreign agent’ law allegedly reminiscent of Russian legislation used to silence critics. However, it later adapted its approach in response to public pressure.

Civil Disobedience and Boycotts:

Supplementing the street protests, civil disobedience campaigns were initiated. Citizens were encouraged to boycott businesses associated with government officials or supporters of the bill. This economic pressure was aimed at swaying the positions of influential individuals and businesses aligned with the government.

Engagement with International Partners:

The campaign actively sought international support and solidarity. Human rights organizations, foreign governments, and global media were engaged to amplify the message. This international dimension applied diplomatic pressure on the Georgian government to reconsider the bill. “Today is a dark day for Georgia’s democracy,” [7]the United States embassy in Georgia said after the initial reading of the bill. International partners have cautioned that enacting such legislation could jeopardize the country’s current partnerships and hinder its efforts towards European integration.[8] Diplomatic channels were actively engaged to exert pressure on the government to respect democratic norms and human rights, reinforcing the importance of peaceful protests.

Monitoring and Post-Protest Phase:

Subsequent to the bill’s withdrawal, the campaign shifted its focus to monitoring the government’s actions, ensuring transparency in legislative processes, and safeguarding democratic values. It aimed to prevent future attempts to introduce similar legislation or undermine civil society.

The campaign employed a multifaceted approach to communication and engagement, including:

  • Social Media: Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram were utilized for information dissemination, protest coordination, and sharing personal stories of those affected by the bill.
  • Traditional Media: The media played a crucial role in shaping public opinion. The spread of disinformation and polarization through media channels posed challenges to the protest movement. Therefore, Television, radio, and print media were leveraged to reach a wider audience and reinforce the campaign’s message.
  • Grassroots Engagement: Town hall meetings, community discussions, and localized outreach initiatives facilitated direct engagement with citizens.

The protests in Tbilisi against the Foreign Agent Bill were a multifaceted demonstration of civic engagement and political activism. While they succeeded in garnering attention both domestically and internationally, leading to withdrawal of the bill, they also faced challenges such as minor clashes with law enforcement and polarization within society. These experiences serve as a rich source of lessons for not only the Georgian context but also for democratic movements globally.

The withdrawal of the Foreign Agents Bill was the campaign’s most significant achievement, reflecting the government’s responsiveness to public pressure. The campaign succeeded in mobilizing a broad cross-section of Georgian society, emphasizing the importance of civil liberties and democratic values. The achievements of the protests also included the accumulation of the international community’s concern over the bill. These successes highlighted the power of collective action and the importance of raising awareness about potential threats to democratic values.

However, the protests also faced setbacks, particularly in terms of maintaining peaceful demonstrations. Occasional clashes with law enforcement underscored the need for improved training and communication between protesters and the authorities. Moreover, the protests revealed deep divisions within Georgian society, emphasizing the importance of addressing polarization and fostering constructive dialogue.

The key takeaway from these protests is the importance of striking a balance between expressing dissent and maintaining peaceful and constructive engagement. Lessons learned include the need for effective communication, engagement with local communities, media literacy campaigns, and legal reforms that protect the right to peaceful assembly. Furthermore, the experience highlights the necessity of international engagement and diplomatic pressure in upholding democratic values.

While the bill was withdrawn, the long-term sustainability of democratic institutions in Georgia remained a concern, requiring ongoing vigilance. Some minor clashes between protesters and law enforcement occurred, highlighting the challenges of maintaining peaceful demonstrations.

The protests in Tbilisi against the Foreign Agent Bill were a nuanced demonstration of the challenges and opportunities faced by civil society in a democracy in transition. The successes and setbacks provide a valuable blueprint for future democratic movements, emphasizing the importance of adaptability, strategic thinking, and a commitment to upholding democratic principles while advocating for change.

Conclusion

The Georgian protests against the Foreign Agents Bill stand as a compelling example of civic mobilization to defend democratic principles and civil liberties. The diverse coalition of actors, including political parties, civil society organizations, and individual activists, effectively harnessed public outrage to bring about change. This case study underscores the importance of public engagement, international solidarity, and persistent advocacy in safeguarding democratic institutions and values. Georgia’s experience serves as a valuable lesson for other nations grappling with similar challenges to their democratic systems.

[1] https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/03/07/georgia-foreign-agents-bill-tramples-rights

[2][2] https://www.iiss.org/en/publications/strategic-dossiers/asia-pacific-regional-security-assessment-2023/aprsa-chapter-1/

[3] https://www.ceps.eu/ceps-publications/eu-accession-prospects-of-ukraine-moldova-and-georgia/

[4] https://civil.ge/archives/524117

[5] https://www.eeas.europa.eu/delegations/georgia/european-perspective-georgia_en?s=221

[6] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/3/8/foreign-agents-law-why-are-protests-taking-place-in?traffic_source=KeepReading

[7] https://ge.usembassy.gov/u-s-embassy-statement-on-parliaments-rushed-advancement-of-kremlin-inspired-legislation-on-so-called-foreign-influence/#:~:text=Today%20is%20a%20dark%20day,integration%20and%20its%20democratic%20development.

[8] https://ipi.media/analysis-georgia-foreign-agent-laws-threatens-media-freedom-and-civil-society/