Putin’s Influence Grows: Eastern European Nation Passes Pro-Moscow Law Amid Violent Protests

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The Georgian government wants to take the country back to the days of the Soviet Union. It has signed a controversial “foreign agent” law, which many fear will bring an end to Georgia’s fledgling democracy.

Georgian riot cops responded violently to tens of thousands of angry protesters who took to the streets in Tbilisi, and other cities throughout Georgia, to express their opposition to the law. Nearly 200,000 people, according to various estimates, were on the streets of Tbilisi and other cities in Georgia, protesting against the new law. The police responded with a heavy response.

As angry protesters continue to bang against barricades outside the parliament and smash barriers surrounding the building, the capitol is on edge. The violent clashes continue between protesters and police.

In a sign of bipartisanship, Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho), Ranking Member of U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, jointly condemned the law, calling it a “dark day for Georgian Democracy.”

Citizens, non-governmental organizations, media outlets, and other civil society organizations that receive more than 20% of their funding from overseas are required to register with the Justice Ministry as foreign agents. Many human rights groups believe that the law will have significant penalties and burdens, which will discredit and marginalize opposition voices.

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Human Rights Watch says that it “threatens the fundamental rights of the country.”

Proponents of this law claim that it will end foreign interference in Georgian domestic affairs. Detractors claim that the law is based on Russian legislation used to suppress dissent.

Tinatin Khidasheli, former Georgian Minister of Defense, said: “The law allows them to launch a witch-hunt against those who don’t share their position or oligarchic style of governance.”

Natia Seskuria is an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute who is currently in Tbilisi. She said that the law would threaten Georgia’s European ambitions and democratic development.

She said that the law is a powerful tool to curb civil liberties and freedom of expression.

Seskuria stated that many people feel right that the government will weaponize this law to silence dissent. The provisions of the law are incompatible with EU values and Georgia cannot progress on its European Integration path as long as the law remains on the books.

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Seskuria said the law “would serve Russian interests” who wish to see Georgia turn away from its Western allies.

Human Rights Watch reports that both the Georgian Dream party, which is the ruling party, and the bill’s sponsors have made it clear in public statements that the law targets critics of the government, LGBT people, and any other dissent the ruling government deems unacceptable.

After weeks of heated debate in the Georgian parliament, supporters and opponents of this law have been physically fighting. The civil society mobilized and actively opposed the bill during its debate for several weeks. The bill was passed by 84 votes to 30 against.

Salome Zourabichvili of Georgia, who is a staunch pro-EU, pro-West supporter, has vowed to veto this law. However, the Parliament, with a simple majority can override it, effectively neutralizing her and ensuring that the law will become law.

In 2023, the same law was proposed by Parliament, but it was met with mass protests. The lawmakers finally caved into public opinion and retracted the bill.

Georgians are very keen to join the EU. Polls show that 83% of Georgians support this goal. Tbilisi applied for EU membership formally in March 2022 – shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine – and was granted Candidate Status in December 2023. Although pro-European sentiment is strong, many Georgians see the ruling party as being sympathetic to Russia and a barrier to the country’s desire to join the EU.

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“Russia’s War in Ukraine is Not About Ukraine Only.” Putin is a radical who wants to shatter the rules-based system. He has a long-term vision which we can see in Georgia,” Ivana Stradner, a research fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies said.

Stradner stated that Putin’s agents are keeping a close eye on Georgia, and are making calculated moves. This includes the Serbian entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina where a similar foreign agent law will be debated by parliament next week.

It will put the West in a defensive position and further undermine democracy. Stradner warned that this is the outcome of Western appeasement.

Stradner said: “Make no mistakes, if Russia wins in Georgia via its proxy forces, the next authoritarian dishes on Putin’s menu will be Moldova and Balkans.”

Khidasheli, the former minister of defense in Georgia, echoes what is being said on the streets. He will continue to be optimistic.

“We will succeed in this battle and return Georgia to its EU and NATO paths, but it be a long and hard fight,” she said.