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 Exploring the Impact of Georgia’s "Foreign Agents" Law with Dr. Elizabeth Cullen Dunn

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Expert Analysis on Georgia’s “Foreign Agents” Law: Discussion of Its Origins, Purposes, and Implications 
May 2024

Today's Totalitarianism invited Dr. Elizabeth Cullen Dunn to share her insights on the article in the Guardian,  “Georgia’s ‘foreign agents’ Law Could be Dropped in Return for US Support Bill.” The following is an excerpt from our interview:

TT - What are the origins of the "foreign agents" law and what purposes would it serve in the Republic of Georgia? 


ECD - The “foreign agents” law is a near-copy of one passed in Russia in 2012. It’s aimed at NGOs that take funding from agencies outside the country, including not just foreign governments but also foundations and civil society organizations. While the overt aim of the law is supposedly to make the work of non-Georgian organizations “more transparent” in order to make it easy for voters to grasp impingements on Georgian sovereignty, the real point is to limit the activities of the social, cultural and political opposition. That doesn’t just mean other political parties—it means any organization that challenges the dominance of Georgian Dream, the political party which has been in power since 2012, and the cultural conservatism of the Georgian Orthodox Church, which, like its counterpart in Moscow, is deeply entwined with the ruling party. 


TT - It appears that politics in Georgia are deeply divided between pro-Russia supporters and pro-Western supporters. How would you characterize the general political scene there and how does the "foreign agents" law fit into it? 


ECD - On the surface, it looks like Georgian Dream is becoming increasingly pro-Russia and the opposition increasingly pro-Western. But this view conceals the essential problem in Georgian politics: that Georgia is what I call a “crumple zone of empire.”  Like the crumple zone in a car, which absorbs the force of a collision, the Caucasus has historically been a place where the impact of conflict between expanding empires is played out. (Other analysts have thought about this geographical problem as the “Russian sphere of influence.” But this image portrays a political strategy as a cultural right, and it obviates other empires’ strategies of expansion).  


Because Georgia has been trapped between expanding empires for so long, Georgian politicians often seek to play one empire off against another. They curry favor with one to prevent aggression by another, or try to cozy up with one to gain concessions from a competitor. The foreign agents law is yet another instance of this gambit. By passing legislation that seems favorable to Russia, Georgian Dream politicians hope to convince Russia not to expand militarily into Georgia (as it did in 2008, or as it did in Ukraine in 2014 and 2022). At the same time, Georgian Dream hopes to get Western institutions including the EU and NATO to finally move forward to admit Georgia by threatening to realign with Russia.    


The foreign agents law has other advantages for Georgian Dream, too. Because it’s explicitly designed to limit NGOs promoting civil rights, including LGBT rights, the law engages the 50% of the population that lives in smaller cities or rural areas outside the capital, which tends to be religious and socially conservative. Just as in Hungary or the US, homophobia is a potent way of mobilizing people who otherwise might not engage in politics. 


TT - What is the background of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili? What is his role and influence in Georgian politics? Why would he support this law? 


ECD - Ivanishvili is an oligarch who made his fortune in Russia during the wild ‘90s, when the Russian state had little control over the market. He made his initial fortune by importing computers into Russia, but later used that capital to get into the highly lucrative mining and banking sectors. At one point, his fortune was said to be larger than the entire GDP of Georgia.  (He was also the secret buyer of Picasso’s Dora Maar au Chat, which broke the record price for an artwork when it sold for $95 million in 2006).  


Although Ivanishvili initially stayed out of politics after his return to Georgia in 2003, in 2012 he financed the overturn of Mikheil Saakashvili’s National Movement Party, which had taken power in 2001 and which had become increasingly authoritarian. Ivanishvili served as Prime Minister for about a year, but since then has largely been a shadowy figure controlling Georgian politics behind the scenes, via his proxies in the Georgian Dream party. The foreign agents law would help crush any opponents to Georgian Dream, thus keeping Ivanishvili in power.   

TT - Who are those protesting the law? How are they organized? What is their agenda? 


ECD - The people protesting the foreign agents law are largely young urbanites from Tbilisi, which has 50% of Georgia’s population. The protesters come from a wide range of social institutions: civil society organizations, think tanks, universities and opposition parties, including United National Movement. Because these people are well-educated, their futures depend on further integration into European and American economies and politics. Many of them are also economically dependent on Western subsidies to the organizations they work for. Because both the US and the EU have said that passage of the foreign agents law will cause them to re-evaluate their support, opponents of the law believe passage will severely restrict their economic and social opportunities.   


TT - What are the implications of this law for Georgia in the coming years? 


ECD - Since Parliament overruled President Salome Zurabishvili’s veto of the law, it will go into effect in late July. This will clearly affect the outcome of parliamentary elections in October, likely handing Georgian Dream another majority. It will also probably torpedo Georgia’s EU aspirations—Georgia was offered candidate status in December 2023, but this could be withdrawn if Georgia is no longer in compliance with EU norms of free speech and democratic practice. In the long run, this law will likely increase Russia’s influence in Georgian politics, bringing Georgia back under some form of the indirect rule it has long experienced.    


Elizabeth Cullen Dunn is an anthropologist and geographer who has conducted field research in the Republic of Georgia since 2000. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, Dunn spent more than 16 months living in a camp for displaced Georgians on the administrative boundary line between Georgia and the breakaway province of South Ossetia, which is occupied by the Russian military. Her book about displacement and humanitarian aid, No Path Home: Humanitarian Camps and the Grief of Displacement was published by Cornell University Press in 2017. She is currently Professor of Geography at Indiana University, where she also serves as the director of the Center for Refugee Studies.

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