This Op-Ed was originally published by Index On Censorship read the original here.

Ten days to save democracy in Georgia

All those across the world who care about freedom need to demonstrate solidarity with protesters on the streets of Tbilisi determined to defeat a new “foreign agent” law.

In the southeastern corner of Europe, in the small country of Georgia, a monumental struggle is unfolding between the government’s authoritarian ambitions and civil society’s determination to advance fundamental freedoms.

Tens of thousands have been out of the streets of the capital Tbilisi protesting the planned adoption of the Russian-style “foreign agent” law which labels NGOs and media outlets receiving more than 20% foreign funding as “organisations acting in the interest of a foreign power”. The adoption of such a law threatens the country’s vibrant civil society and dashes the dreams of Georgians who want European Union integration. If the law comes into effect, democratic norms across Eastern Europe are likely to be negatively affected, with communities of human rights defenders coming under increasing pressure from governments tempted to follow suit. All who care about freedom and democracy need to take action now and demonstrate global solidarity for Georgian civil society.

On 3 April 2024, Georgia’s ruling party, the Georgian Dream Party,  announced that they were resurrecting the so-called “foreign agent” draft law, almost entirely copying the text defeated by mass protests in March 2023. The passing of such a law would give organs of the state sweeping powers to carry out extensive inspections of NGOs and media organisations and forcibly put them on a special registry. Non-compliance would result in heavy fines. The law was adopted at its second reading on 1 May 2024 against the backdrop of furious mass protests outside the Parliament. The third and final reading is scheduled for 17 May.

Contrary to the declared aims of the authorities to increase transparency within civil society, the draft is a key legal instrument straight out of the Russian authoritarian playbook. It goes without saying that such a law violates freedom of association. Over 150 civic and media organisations in Georgia have already vowed not to register, potentially resulting in many people who are victims of abuse being left without vital services and without support in their fight for justice.

The revival of restrictive legislation against NGOs is part of a larger pattern of assault against a broad range of human rights in Georgia. In recent years, civil society and international human rights bodies have raised numerous concerns about the narrowing civic space for free expression and protest. They have highlighted illegal surveillanceattempts at criminalisation of legitimate human rights work, smear campaigns and increased physical attacks particularly on the LGBT population, coupled with impunity for often violent far-right political groups. The democratic decline in the country is confirmed by international civil society rankings, with Georgia dropping staggeringly low on the World Press Freedom Index, and being assessed as becoming a “semi-consolidated authoritarian regime”.

Last month in other assaults on the rights of women and minority groups the Georgian Parliament hastily abolished mandatory gender quotas for women within political party lists and initiated constitutional amendments which threaten to outlaw LGBTQI-related expression and protest. Georgia holds parliamentary elections on 26 October 2024, and the proposed “foreign agent” law calls into question the ability of NGOs to roll out their usual large-scale election observation missions, which have traditionally played a key role in ensuring elections are free and fair.

Understandably, Georgian civil society and the public have not been sitting idly in the face of such an existential threat to democracy and civic space. One of the key victories of civil society was the success in countering the official narrative about alleged lack of foreign funding transparency. Human rights defenders and activists successfully made the wider public aware that the law was about Russian-style authoritarianism with more repression to follow, and it would totally undermine Georgia’s European integration, which enjoys a steadfast 7983% support and is guaranteed by the Constitution. Hence the main protest slogan: “Yes to Europe, No to Russian Law”.

The shifting of narrative also worked because the Georgian public remembers the term “foreign agent” and its negative connotations which hark back to Stalinist repression. In the 1930s, a whole generation of Georgian intellectuals were executed on trumped-up charges, accused of being “spies” of various Western states.

Since parliamentary hearings on the law began in mid-April, protests have been unrelenting. They are mostly organised horizontally and led by students and young adults, dubbed as “Gen Z”. Georgia has a population of just 3.7 million, which makes the gathering of more than 100,000 people in front of the Parliament all the more extraordinary. The opposition to the law has gripped the entire society, with theatre performances across Georgia ending in declarations of protest against the law. Sportspeople, football clubs, some businesses, writers and cultural workers, teachers, start-ups, bloggers, doctors and academics have come together to condemn the government’s plans.

The law enforcement uses illegal and largely disproportionate force against mostly peaceful protesters. Tear gas, stun grenades, pepper spray and water cannons are almost a daily occurrence, with documented cases of likely illegal use of rubber bullets and beatings, judged tantamount to ill-treatment and torture. Yet, the protesters stand firm.

The anticipated descent of Georgia into the authoritarian abyss will be felt more widely across Eastern Europe, where human rights defenders face many risks due to wars or repressive regimes. Despite negative trends and proven cases of cross-border intimidation of dissidents, Georgia is still a place of temporary shelter and a relatively safe space for those who can no longer carry out civic work in their own countries, or who need a brief respite. All this is expected to vanish with the adoption of “foreign agent” law.

International condemnation of recent events has been unanimous. The European Union has made it clear that the proposed draft legislation undermines Georgia’s EU accession path. Yet, the government rhetoric remains in the eyes of many of us unhingedbrazen and threatening. The authorities seem to be set on adopting the “foreign agent” law at all costs. This would signify a U-turn regarding Georgia’s place within the international rules-based order. Moreover, what is at stake is the end of a vibrant civil society which has played a role in upholding fundamental freedoms within and beyond national borders. International organisations, civil society and like-minded states should leverage all legal means available to exert pressure on the authorities and be even more vocal in their support to the Georgian public and human rights defenders. They need to act today. Tomorrow could be too late.

Top photo: Jelger Groeneveld via Flickr (CC by 2.0 Deed)