Labeling Georgian Demonstrators as “Foreign Agents”

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For weeks, Georgia has been engulfed in protests motivated by the passage of the so-called “foreign agents” law. Regional media outlets have disseminated disinformation about these protests, labeling them as attempted coups or alleging they were orchestrated by Western powers and foreign agents.

Photo: Adam Jones, Flickr

In recent days, mass protests have erupted in Georgia following the passage of the “foreign agents” law. Adopted by the state parliament on May 14, 2024, in its third reading, the law mandates that organizations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad must register as entities “representing the interests of a foreign power.” Tens of thousands have been demonstrating for weeks on the streets of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, opposing this law because of its striking resemblance to a similar legislation in Russia.

Media outlets and social networks are abuzz with claims that the protests in Georgia are either a coup d’état or a “color revolution”—a term frequently used manipulatively to describe protests and governmental changes in the former Eastern bloc. It is also alleged that the protests have been orchestrated by Western countries and “foreign agents.”

Ritter: The CIA is trying to carry out a coup d’état in Georgia, and dreams of the same scenario in Russia (Borba, May 5, 2024)

FOREIGN AGENTS “CAUSED CHAOS” ON THE STREET OF THE CAPITAL CITY: Mass protests, 20 detained in front of the parliament (Republika, May 13, 2024)

Pro-Western agents organize protests against a completely normal law and want to force Georgia into the EU (Logicno, April 17, 2024)

A Tool for Repressing Civil Society

The adoption of the Law on the Transparency of Foreign Influence, colloquially known as the law on “foreign agents”, was initially proposed by the ruling party Georgian Dream in 2023. The law was not passed because of mass protests held in opposition to its adoption. The proposal was returned to the procedure again in March of this year after the new Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze took office.

Despite the mass protests that began in April, the Law was adopted by Parliament in May, with 84 votes in favour, and Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili promised to veto it. However, the presidential veto can be overridden in the Parliament.

According to this law, all non-governmental organizations and media houses that receive more than 20% of their funds from abroad will have to register as bodies that “represent the interests of a foreign power” and publish sensitive financial information. If they refuse, the law foresees fines of almost 10,000 dollars, as well as additional fines of 7,500 dollars for each subsequent month in which they decide not to comply with the regulations. Such fines could result in the shutdown of some organizations and media (link).

Demonstrators claim that the adoption of this law returns Georgia to the sphere of Russian influence, after the 2008 war that resulted in the Russian occupation of Abkhazia, and that it endangers the European path of Georgia, which in December 2023 received the status of a candidate for membership in EU.

The recently adopted law is also colloquially referred to as the “Russian law” due to its strong similarities with the Law on Non-Profit Organizations, which was adopted in Russia in 2012 as the government’s response to mass protests in the country at the time.

As explained in Raskrinkavanje’s analysis, published on April 17, 2023, since 2012 this law has been amended several times to ensure the implementation of increasingly repressive measures against civil society and certain media. The law, among other things, enabled the authorities to characterize organizations and individuals as “foreign agents” and prescribe five-year prison terms if they “do not report their activities in the correct manner”.

The Venice Commission also published its opinion on Russian law in 2021, stating that it needs fundamental changes in order not to endanger democratic processes and the right to association.

In 2022, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of organizations that sued Russia for forcing them to register as “foreign agents” and the repression that followed. The judgment states:

9. The application of the Law on Foreign Agents led to the imposition of administrative fines, financial expenses, restrictions on the activities of the applicant’s organizations and initiation of criminal proceedings against the director of one organization. Many organizations were shut down for violating the conditions applicable to “foreign agents” or had to shut down themselves because they could not pay fines, or to avoid new sanctions.

10. On December 28 or 29, 2021, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, or the City Court in Moscow, approved the prosecutor’s requests for the liquidation of the organizations “International Memorial” and “Memorial Center for Human Rights” and their offices. The courts found that the organizations – which the Ministry of Justice put on the Register of “Foreign Agents” – had committed “repeated” violations of the law on “foreign agents” by not putting labels on their Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and other online publications that they come from an organization that is a “foreign agent”. The courts considered that by “concealing [their] status as a foreign agent” the organizations failed to ensure “transparency of [their] activities”, prevented “adequate public control of [their] activities” and violated “the right of citizens to receive reliable information about [their] activities”, therefore making flagrant violation of Russian law.

Many organizations were shut down, including those that dealt with human rights and humanitarian work. In an article published on the web portal The Moscow Times in June 2013, it was announced:

Since 2013, more than 550 individuals and organizations have been included in the Register of Foreign Agents. If an organization recognized as a foreign agent does not register, it must immediately pay a fine of 100,000 to 400,000 rubles ($1,295 to $5,181). If the fine is not paid within 60 days, a new fine is charged.

Many people are afraid to work with these kinds of organizations. When they labelled foreign agents, some organizations ceased operations.

The Freedom of Information Foundation was declared a foreign agent in 2015. Since 2004, the foundation has been working on studies, analyzes and implementation of the constitutional right of citizens and organizations to access information. After receiving this new status, it closed its doors.

The humanitarian foundation “Sveca” was also closed after it was identified as a foreign agent. The organization provided care to HIV-positive patients. The authorities considered that the posts made by the foundation’s leader on his personal Facebook page represented “political activities”.

The Saratov Regional Organization for Diabetics, the Center for Support of the Indigenous Peoples of the North and the Archangel Regional Youth Ecological Public Organization “Etas” — are just some of the many organizations that have also been closed for the same reason. Being a “foreign agent” became a death sentence.

The law also had disastrous consequences for independent media, considering that almost all media that are not under the control of the Russian authorities, or that are critical of the Putin regime, are labelled as “foreign agents” and are forced to suffer repressive measures or stop working. In an article by the International Press Institute published on July 25, 2022, it is stated the following:

While initially, the Law targeted foreign media funded by foreign governments, such as RSE/RL, its progressive expansion soon began to threaten independent media in general, including domestic ones. The concept of foreign funding, which is supposedly a key prerequisite for listing [foreign agents], has been watered down to become comprehensive. Going on a press tour or international conference paid for by a foreign organization, or even receiving money from relatives or friends abroad, was enough to be declared a foreign agent.

So, it is clear that the Law on Non-Profit Organizations served Russia’s authorities to deal with everyone who expressed criticism in any way – from civil society organizations, through the media to individuals.

Thus, it is evident why there is apprehension in Georgia about the potential repercussions of adopting the law.

Coup d’état or Civil Resistance?

A coup d’état is defined as a sudden, violent change of power by a small group that has partial or complete control over the armed forces, i.e. the army and the police. In some cases, the impetus to carry out a coup came from foreign governments, as was the case in a number of African and South American countries during the Cold War.

The terms “coup”, “revolution” and “rebellion” have different meanings. A coup d’état implies a change in power relations at the top of the state, which mainly results in a sudden change of persons in power, does not bring significant social changes and does not involve significant participation of the civilian population. Rebellion is defined as a large-scale violent uprising of the civilian population against the state, which may result in a change in the government or certain policies, but not in the entire society. Revolution, on the other hand, implies an organized uprising of a large part of the population with the aim of achieving radical social changes.

Therefore, all three terms denote a potential change of government, but two imply the participation and will of a large part of the civilian population, while one implies the violent overthrow of a certain authority by a small group of people.

However, the demonstrators in Georgia do not express a desire to forcibly remove the current government. Namely, citizens, activists and opposition politicians on the streets of Tbilisi are demanding that the Government withdraw the law, which they see as something that will potentially threaten their rights and bring them into the sphere of Russian influence. Polls conducted last year showed that 77% of Georgians consider Russia the biggest political threat to their country and that only 2% identify as “pro-Russian”. As much as 80% of the population in Georgia wants their country to become a member of the European Union.

Taking this data into account, it is not difficult to understand why more than 50,000 people, mostly ordinary citizens, showed up at the demonstration against what they call the “Russian law”. To suggest that all these people, who are using their right to assembly, are foreign agents carrying out a coup d’état – without absolutely any evidence – is absurd.

Most of the media from BiH and the region that published such claims did not present any concrete evidence. A few have published a statement from former US intelligence officer Scott Ritter, who claims that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is behind the protests, also without presenting any evidence for this. Scott Ritter is a former member of the US Marine Corps, where he served as an intelligence officer and later as a nuclear weapons inspector in Iraq. After leaving his post, he became a frequent guest on the programs of the Russian state media RT and Sputnik.

Thus, there is no publicly available evidence that the protests in Georgia are an attempted coup or that foreign intelligence agencies and governments are behind them. It seems that these accusations are based solely on the simple fact that a certain number of citizens expressed dissatisfaction with the law, which they consider pro-Russian.

Claiming that any protest against the measures of an authoritarian or pro-Russian government in Eastern European countries is a “color revolution”, i.e. “staged”, or an “attempted coup”, is unfounded, but also malicious. This insinuates that the people living in these countries are not able to make their own choices and decisions or organize themselves and resist measures they consider repressive. Such accusations are rarely related to protests in Western countries, but they are an almost indispensable part of the conversation about any civil movement in other parts of Europe and the world (123).

The “Foreign Agents” Law is Knocking on the Door in BiH

In March 2023, the President of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, announced the proposal of a law on the activities of non-governmental organizations in that entity. This law should also compel foreign-funded NGOs to register as “foreign agents”.

Dodik then claimed that the controversial law would be “identical to the American one”. However, as we explained in detail in the analysis available here, the proposal actually looks much more like the Russian law we wrote about above than the American one.

In March of this year, the Government of Republika Srpska approved the Draft Law on the Special Register and Publicity of the Work of Non-Profit Organizations, and it will be voted on in the National Assembly of Republika Srpska (NSRS) on May 22, 2024.

These proposals have met with harsh criticism from representatives of non-governmental organizations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, who claim that their adoption threatens democratic principles and seek to silence criticism directed at the authorities.

Given all the facts, we assess the claim suggesting that the protests against the adoption of the law on “foreign agents” in Georgia represent an attempt at “coup d’état”, that is, that they were orchestrated by “foreign agents” or Western countries, as a conspiracy theory.

(Author: Nerma Šehović,