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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Do not allow Putin to capture another pawn in Europe

A building damaged by an airstrike that injured at least 14 people in the center of Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Finbarr O’Reilly/The New York Times)

By Serge Schmemann

The Georgians call it the Russian Law. It was passed recently by the parliament in the Republic of Georgia, purportedly to improve transparency by having civil society and media groups that get some of their funds from abroad register as groups “carrying the interests of a foreign power.” But the tens of thousands of Georgians who have taken to the streets again and again against the law know its real goal — to suppress those who would hold the government to account, and to move the country into the orbit of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The law has drawn stiff rebukes from the United States and Europe. The State Department has announced visa restrictions on officials behind the foreign-agent law, and Congress has threatened further sanctions. European Union officials have warned that it could block Georgia’s bid for membership only six months after the country was granted candidate status. This is a serious threat for a country where polls show about 80% of the population supporting a Western political orientation.

The clash over the foreign-agent law in a small country nestled in the Caucasus Mountains has been largely overshadowed by Russia’s war on Ukraine. Yet it is also at its core an East-West struggle over Georgia’s political path, a contest with cardinal implications for the region’s future. Georgia, in fact, was the first neighboring country invaded by Russia post-Soviet Union, in 2008, to block its westward drift.

Now the ruling party, Georgian Dream, seems to share Russia’s goal, though it has generally avoided openly siding with Russia. Launched 12 years ago by billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili — who made his money in Russia — as a broad and ill-defined opposition movement, the party has taken an increasingly anti-Western stance in recent years. In a speech in Tbilisi, the nation’s capital, last month, Ivanishvili inveighed against a “global war party” that, he said, was “appointed from outside” and was using nongovernmental organizations to take control of Georgia. Georgian Dream has also echoed other Russian attacks on purported Western decadence.

The foreign-agent bill marks the most overt political attack on Western influence the party has taken. When first introduced last year, massive public protests forced the government to pull it back. But the government revived it this spring, and despite even larger and angrier protests, the parliament passed the bill May 14.

The pro-Western president of Georgia, Salome Zourabichvili, whose position is largely ceremonial but allows her to block legislation, promptly vetoed the measure, arguing that in essence and spirit it was “a Russian law that contradicts our Constitution and all European standards, and therefore an obstacle to our European path.” Though Georgian Dream has more than enough votes to override the veto, it has not done so yet, and there are reports that it might be prepared to let it stay on the shelf in exchange for Western aid and other perks.

The Russian and Georgian laws, though on the face of it similar to the Foreign Agents Registration Act that’s been on American books since 1938, carry a far different message. To anyone reared in the Soviet Union, “foreign agent” has an unmistakable connotation: Spy. Enemy. Traitor.

Georgian nongovernmental organizations have already felt the sting. The deputy managing director of the Georgian branch of Transparency International, a global anti-corruption organization, told the French news outlet France 24 that posters affixed outside his home read “Enemy of the Church,” “Enemy of the state,” “LGBT propagandist” and the like, clearly spelling out how Georgian Dream shares Russia’s definition of “foreign agent.”

Compelling a person or organization to prominently declare in anything they publish or post that they are a “foreign agent” is a devastating stigma. And in addition to the stigma, failure to register can carry ruinous penalties. The Kremlin has used the law, enacted in 2012 after a wave of anti-Putin demonstrations, to shut down many independent nongovernmental organizations that dealt with corruption, election monitoring, the climate, gender or anything else that Putin could not control or deemed threatening.

Georgian Dream may reckon on a similar crackdown in the period before parliamentary elections set for Oct. 26, to muffle the pro-Western opposition. But the law could have the opposite effect, uniting a badly fractured opposition in support of a pro-Western future. Some 120 Georgian organizations have declared that they will not register as foreign agents if the law is enacted, portending a nasty struggle.

The tug of war is not yet over. There have been reports that the Georgian government may be open to freezing the law in exchange for a package of economic and security support and privileges like visa liberalization. Politico has reported that the U.S. House of Representatives is working on a carrot-and-stick bill with just such incentives should the foreign-agent bill be scrapped, along with sanctions should it be enacted.

And while Americans and Europeans are ramping up the pressures to take down Georgia’s bill, they might take a look at their own “foreign agent” legislation to ensure that it never becomes weaponized for political reasons.

America’s Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, written in 1938 to combat Nazi propaganda and all but forgotten until Russia began meddling in U.S. elections, basically requires persons or entities engaged in lobbying or advocacy for foreign governments to register with the Department of Justice. It has now become a major tool for exposing efforts by Russia, China and other autocratic states to manipulate the Western public through media, governmental or commercial outlets they control. The EU is now working on a similar law.

Over the years, accusations have cropped up of selective use of FARA against organizations unpopular at the moment with the government, such as the Irish Northern Aid Committee or the Palestine Information Office. Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee tried to use FARA against an environmental advocacy group in 2018. The law has surfaced in investigations of Hunter Biden, the president’s son, and questions have been raised about why Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who has been accused of acting as an agent for Egypt, blocked legislation that would have modernized and strengthened FARA.

On balance, a law that helps the public understand who is funding foreign influence operations is useful and needed at a time when foreign meddling in elections or other domestic processes is becoming more insidious and widespread. The fact that democratic countries have such legislation does not negate their obligation to speak and act against its perversion by governments and politicians seeking to destroy the very transparency that such laws are intended to provide.

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