13 May 2024

People ‘expecting the West to stand by Georgia’, says opposition party leader

Protests continue in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, against a controversial new foreign influence law, which have brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets in an attempt to stop MPs passing the ‘foreign agents’ bill. They say it mirrors a law used by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to crack down on opponents and stifle freedom of speech.

We spoke to Tina Bokuchava, who leads the United National Movement in the Georgian parliament, about her fears if the law is passed.

Tina Bokuchava: The stakes are high because of this Kremlin-inspired foreign agent law that the Georgian Dream government, led by Russian-made billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, has initiated in Georgia after it was withdrawn as a result of widespread protests last year. It risks stifling all critical voices in Georgia ahead of key parliamentary elections that will certainly result in regime change, if they are to reflect the will of the people here in Georgia, which is precisely why the Ivanishvili-led government here in Georgia is trying to enact legislation to silence critical voices, including CSOs (Civil Society Organisations), including election watchdogs, that would be observing these key parliamentary elections in October of this year.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: You say that the last time this happened, the government climbed down, and the protests won. But this time the government seems determined to go ahead. What will happen if it goes ahead? What will happen to the protests?

Tina Bokuchava: Last year, there was a decision to be made on Georgia’s candidate status from the European Union. And therefore, the Ivanishvili-led government thought that in order to secure candidacy, they had to listen to the Georgian people. Whereas now they believe that the candidate status has been secured, so Ivanishvili can push through with his Kremlin-inspired, Russian-styled foreign agent law. All the NGOs operating in Georgia, all the leading watchdogs and CSOs, have already declared that they have absolutely no intention to register in this agents’ registry that the government foresees with this law. And what will happen is the government will continue its crackdown, it will continue its repressions that it has announced and has acted upon, because opposition leaders and activists are being beaten in the streets. People are being massively intimidated. What we’re seeing is essentially state-sponsored terrorism against its own citizens that the government is implementing through the use of state security services and other police units. What we’re expecting is for the west to stand by Georgia, including for very decisive actions, perhaps sanctions from the United States that could halt these authoritarian moves from the Ivanishvili-led government, which are trying to impede Georgia’s aspirations towards the European Union and the Atlantic aspirations more generally, including NATO.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: Just for people who might be a little confused, people might think this is a democratic government, isn’t it? Didn’t it win an election, and isn’t the foreign influence law something that isn’t just Russian? There are lots of countries that have one. India has one, Australia has one. Even the British government is looking at extending its own foreign influence registration. So just explain why this is so worrying.

Tina Bokuchava: This is so worrying because the purpose of this law is not to ascertain if a certain organisation is acting at the direction of a foreign principal, or is implementing activities that present a national security threat to Georgia and to Georgia’s national interests, but rather it aims at targeting every single organisation that receives funding of 20% from any foreign source – including the United States, including the European Union, including Great Britain. And that is essentially the primary difference between the laws that democratic countries have, which are actually aimed at transparency, and this law, the objective of which is really to stigmatise, discredit and delegitimise and proclaim as agents, and therefore traitors, all organisations that are actually working in the interest of Georgian citizens. And also it’s very important, I think, perhaps for the British public, is the past of Georgia. It’s the Soviet legacy, it’s the Soviet past where any actor of foreign influence or any agent is synonymous to treason, is synonymous to being traitors. And we are already seeing this law in action as the government cracks down on all critical voices, including in the civil society sector.