8 march protest in Tbilisi(cropped).jpg by DerFuchs is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Last month, thousands of Georgians took to the streets of Tbilisi to protest the law “On the transparency of foreign influence" that requires non-governmental organizations who receive more than 20% of funding from abroad to register as “pursuing the interests of a foreign power.” Dubbed “Russian law” by protesters, the legislation is criticized for being authoritarian and impeding the country’s integration into the European Union.

Although demonstrations were met with arrests, tear gas and water cannons by the police, they continued to grow in numbers and spread to several other major cities. Despite mounting opposition, the Georgian Parliament passed the law in its third and final reading with an 84-30 vote on May 14. Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili vetoed the bill, but Georgian Dream, the ruling party that introduced the legislation, had enough votes in Parliament to overturn the president’s veto on May 28.

Georgian Dream argued the bill would contribute to transparency and national sovereignty. The party proposed a similar law last year but eventually withdrew it after massive protests in the capital. The reintroduced bill is almost identical to the “foreign agents” law passed in Russia in 2012, which has been used to silence media critical of the Kremlin. Similar laws were also recently passed in Kyrgyzstan and Hungary.

“The intents of this law are the same sort of intents that Putin had in 2012: To demonize NGOs that receive any kind of foreign funding by calling them foreign agents and imposing penalties for not registering,” said Northwestern Ambassador in Residence Ian Kelly, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Georgia from 2015-2018. “It is an attempt to crush civil society in Georgia.”

The organizations added to the register would be monitored by the Ministry of Justice and could be asked to share sensitive information under the threat of heavy fines. In its current form, the law would target some NGOs and media organizations involved in monitoring or covering the elections, which raised concerns about the legitimacy of future voting processes in the country.

Many protesters view the legislation as a decisive factor in Georgia’s long struggle between Europe and Russia and argue that the ruling party is trying to drag Georgia under the Russian sphere of influence. A prominent opposition MP, Giorgi Vashadze even accused Georgian Dream of “betraying our country’s European future.”

Georgia applied for EU membership in 2022 and was granted candidate status last December. Public polls show that about 80 percent of Georgians are in favor of joining the alliance with the goal of full EU integration embedded into the country’s revised Constitution.

EU officials, however, have since made it clear that the law would hinder Georgia from joining the bloc. After the bill passed Parliament, European Council President Charles Michel spoke out against it, stating that to join the alliance, Georgia must “respect the fundamental principles of the rule of law and the democratic principles."

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the U.S. will review its relationship with Tbilisi and introduce visa restrictions for Georgian officials responsible for the law passage. The U.S. Senate is also considering a bill that would impose sanctions against Georgian politicians, suspend the U.S.-Georgia Strategic Dialogue and grant millions “to support democracy” in Georgia.

“I think it's a really decisive moment for Georgia,” Weinberg second-year Anna Tkebuchava, whose relatives participated in the demonstrations, said. “If the law does get passed, it's really going to bring Georgia back to where it was during the Soviet Union. And if it doesn't get passed, there's a very bright future for Georgia in the EU.”

The relationship between Georgia and Russia remains complicated as Russia currently occupies about 20% of internationally recognized Georgian territory — the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. After the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, Moscow recognized those regions as independent states and increased its military presence there. In response, Georgia broke off formal diplomatic relationships with Moscow.

According to Ambassador Kelly, Georgia’s ties with Russia have strengthened in recent years. Since the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine, many Russians have moved to neighboring Georgia thanks to a visa-free regime. Tbilisi also increased its trade with Moscow and did not join the EU sanctions against the Kremlin.

Anna Dolidze, an opposition leader, called the “foreign agents” legislation a Russian "test of allegiance" for the Georgian Dream. The party members have repeatedly denied any connections with Russia.

During the last 12 years of being in power, Georgian Dream promised to take Georgia to the EU and even helped the liberalization of the EU visa regime for Georgian citizens in 2017.

However, since then the party’s rhetoric has become increasingly anti-Western, blaming Europe for both the escalation of war in Ukraine and for promoting LGBTQ+ rights. Georgian Dream’s founder and honorary chair, oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made a fortune in Russia, called Western countries “The Global Party of War” in a recent speech and accused them of trying to drag Georgia into the war with Moscow.

Georgian Dream further jeopardized the country’s EU integration by introducing a law banning Pride events, gender transitioning and same-sex adoption. Prime Minister and Georgian Dream Member Irakli Kobakhidze has also criticized NGOs for spreading “gay propaganda” and joined the May 17 march in support of “family values,” the Georgian Orthodox church, and against foreign-funded organizations that promote “un-Georgian” values.

The ongoing protests in Georgia highlighted the disconnect between the path charted by the ruling party and the aspirations of Georgian youth and civil society. Driven mainly by Gen Z, the demonstrations gave momentum to the opposition parties, but Georgian Dream remains popular among many voters drawn to its rhetoric of promoting peace and protecting conservative values. With the upcoming parliamentary elections in October, Georgia faces a pivotal moment that could define both its domestic policies and global alignment.