June 14. 2024. 1:03

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‘Foreign agent’ bill fundamentally alters relationship with West, Georgia’s president warns


Georgia’s controversial ‘foreign agent’ law profoundly changes the country’s relationship with its Western partners and the EU should take the outcome of the upcoming elections as a basis to reassess its ties with Tbilisi, the country’s President Salome Zourabishvili told Euractiv.

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You clearly stated you would veto the ‘foreign agent’ law, but it is a largely symbolic veto. What do you fear will be the domestic impact of the bill?

This law is more than just a law. In all its content and form, it resembles Russia’s law and is a clear attempt to intimidate non-governmental civil society organisations at a very sensitive time for us, just before the 26 October elections.

The purpose is even clear because those non-governmental organisations will be involved in observing the upcoming elections.

This bill changes the terms of our relationship with our Western partners and friends, as it considers them agents of subversion and revolution that are trying to overthrow the current government. It targets the very organisations that have built this country since our independence, supporting democratic development, agriculture, education, and health.

The narrative of ‘you have helped us for 30 years, but now you are agents of foreign influence‘ does not fit. Many Georgians, a very big part of society, have all worked with international, European or American organisations at one point or another.

This includes the people who are now in power, such as the chair of the parliament who worked for a German foundation for 15 years. According to their logic, this makes them also agents of influence.

After it was rejected last year amid mass demonstrations and criticism that it was non-European, they [Georgian Dream] brought it back at the worst possible moment, when there was no need for it, and things were stable with no tensions.

So, why revive it?

It is a clear obstacle to our European future. Instead of what we should be doing—working on Georgia starting accession negotiations—we are losing time and the consensus of society for something that is clearly defined (by our constitution).

This means that this government, the ruling party, is not eager to take us towards the results we should achieve by the end of the year by fulfilling the European Commission’s nine steps towards reform. Instead, we are focused now on this law and its consequences.

It has taken on a more symbolic value because it encompasses everything else that has been happening, including this very harsh rhetoric that we hear against our Western partners, especially Bidzina Ivanishvili’s speech of 29 April, which was almost a war declaration against our 30-year-long partners.

A similar law is being prepared in Slovakia. Should what is happening in Georgia be a warning for us in Europe as well? How do you perceive this trend of backsliding?

It is certainly part of the backsliding we see everywhere. But when this happens with countries within Europe, they’re much safer in their direction. I mean, you don’t get out of the EU that easily, even if you take some wrong turns.

For us, it is much more existential because our European future is clearly and definitely linked with preserving the independence of this country. We all know that being left alone to face our northern neighbour is very dangerous.

This is why there is so much emphasis on everything the population wants for its European future. It’s not only the EU adding prosperity, but they know that there is only one direction from which Georgia can get more security and more preservation of its identity.

The EU has urged the government to withdraw the law or face possible consequences. What are your expectations towards the EU now?

The only ones who can change the bigger picture of our current situation are the people themselves in the elections. We have to prepare peacefully and quietly for the elections and the role the EU can play.

They have to make clear what Georgia’s choice is in the elections and they have to put it in those terms. Either it is continuing on the path towards the EU and accelerating if possible, or taking another direction.

The EU has to hear not only people on the streets but also what people will say in the elections, which will be a type of referendum. Depending on the outcome, this will decide whether they [the EU] will or will not pause the visa liberalisation or other processes.

There seems to be a narrative that some sort of common ground can be found between the two sides. What is the message to Brussels?

I know that there are some attempts to dialogue with the government authorities. However, they [the government] are not to be trusted because if they were, they would not have taken these steps in the first place.

Today, the problem—and that’s where maybe there is a difference between how Brussels sees things and how the population here does—is no longer this law; it is about the whole picture.

My veto is as symbolic as this law has been. I know the veto will be repelled, but that does not matter, as I will do it in the name of the people protesting on the streets so that they are not left just standing on the streets.

But do you feel the Western message is likely to change the trajectory of the Georgian Dream? Is the pressure working?

I don’t care, frankly, and the people on the streets do not care because nobody believes that there are any amendments to the law that can truly change the situation or the direction we are heading with it. That’s why so many people are on the streets.

Are there any measures such as sanctions by the EU that would help steer the government back on the right path right now?

We can’t speak about sanctions on Georgia, as in the country itself, when people protest with European flags on the streets. There cannot be measures taken now, because now the population is on the streets fighting for our rights.

As for individual, personal sanctions, because the EU wants to make its warning clear to some people, that’s not for me as the president of the country to comment on.

Linked to the threat the current situation poses to the elections, you have talked about the creation of a ‘European platform’, what would this entail?

I will offer a European Action Plan platform with the steps that the next Georgian parliament should take. I will offer it to society and political parties so they can be reunited on this common objective while being free to run according to their own political agendas. I hope that most of the political parties will sign, those that will be going into the elections.

It will include a call to abolish, as soon as possible, all laws that go against the spirit and letter of European reform recommendations. There is a call that at the same time, they will adopt new legislation in a short period of time that corresponds to the requests presented by the EU side relating to the rule of law, the justice system, and corruption.