Unveiling the Shadows: Georgia's Stand Against Russian Law

9 Mar, 2024

A Year After



March 9 marks the anniversary of repealing the widely dubbed ‘Russian Law’ following the civil protests in Tbilisi. The story, which made headlines, has been recounted numerous times, often with acknowledgment of the high stakes, the seriousness of the risks involved, and its almost melodramatic plot. Following Hungary and Slovakia’s lead, preceded by the infamous case of Russia, after a sudden intensification of anti-CSO smear campaigns, the Georgian Parliament grappled with enacting the Law on Transparency of Foreign Influence (Referred to as Bill and Russian Law).

This initiative emerged amidst a backdrop of tension characterized by the Georgian Dream party’s increasingly anti-democratic stance and its pivot towards Russia. The proposed Bill, targeting civil society organizations primarily funded by Western sources, raised alarms about a significant backslide in Georgia’s democratic trajectory. This has been observed as yet another step to curb the democratic development of Georgia and redirect its political path toward the North (Russia).

However, just over three weeks after its introduction, the ruling party hastily retracted the Bill to diffuse what appeared to be an escalating political crisis. On March 9, 2023, the Bill was recalled by the same majority of votes, including the very same MPs who had enthusiastically supported it on February 16, 2023, boasting about ending alleged foreign influence. Remarkably, one of the MPs from the ruling party expressed three different opinions within two rounds of voting for the legislation – first abstaining, then citing a technical mistake, and voting in favor of the Russian Law, only to ultimately vote against it three and a half weeks later.

Authoritarian pressure on civil society often accompanies democratic setbacks. In contrast to Russia, similar attempts to stifle civil society in Hungary, Slovakia, and later in Georgia, deploying essentially Russian tactics, all met with failure. However, what makes Georgia’s case unique is that unlike Hungary or Slovakia, a higher European court couldn’t override national law, and the incumbent government wouldn’t face the severe prospects of financial implications for deviating from the essential principles and policies of the EU. In Georgia, the same decisive victory was achieved through genuine grassroots civic activism, as a unified outcry from Georgian civil society forced the ruling party to retract the Bill, highlighting the power of collective action in safeguarding democratic principles.

The implications of defeating the Russian Law in Georgia extend beyond merely protecting the country’s vibrant and diverse civic space. This significant civil victory proved a major motivating success for civil society and all pro-democracy actors in Georgia, effectively resetting the national stage. The limits for political action by authorities were once again defined, and the red lines were reaffirmed.

For all these reasons, a year after the event, the “No to Russian Law” campaign is worth revisiting for a better understanding of the context, capabilities, strategies, and tactics employed by the opposing parties, as well as the current context that has been shaped in many ways by the victory achieved in March 2023.

The Context as of March 2023: Overview of the Political Climate

By 2023, the Georgian Dream Party, which came into power with a promise of EU integration and liberal democracy, has long shifted towards anti-Western rhetoric and authoritarian tendencies. Despite overwhelming and steadfast public support for Western integration, the government’s actions increasingly inclined towards Russia, straining relations with the West and stifling democratization efforts. For the last decade, public dissent manifested through various protests in Tbilisi underscored the society’s commitment to the Western democratic path and its resistance to authoritarian encroachment.

For specific reasons, the ratings of opposition parties hit all-time lows, leaving Georgia’s pro-democracy, western-minded civil society organizations as the strongest influencers of public opinion among all pro-democracy actors – a role and position they never sought or aspired to. In the summer of 2022, civil society successfully promoted broad civil solidarity across all dividing lines to defend the country’s European choice. The display of national unity at the pro-European public rallies of unprecedented scale forced the incumbent government to reverse some of its recent policies and rhetoric. This included reversing its clearly stated refusal to apply for EU membership candidacy until 2024 (the year of Parliamentary elections) and instead applying for it alongside Moldova and Ukraine under the looming threat of mass protests.

By the time of the genesis of Russian Law, Georgia’s progress to EU membership candidacy depended on progress with the EU conditionality of 12 recommendations. As for public opinion trends – for the last 30 years, pro-EU sentiments remained a matter of broad national consensus, with 80-85% of citizens supporting Georgia’s joining the EU (amidst the turmoil of the March protests, as of April 2023, 89% of Georgians either entirely or somewhat supported joining the European Union,). There was no indication of the government’s intention to comply with the EU’s 12 recommendations and proceed with reforms backed by a majority of citizens. Policy course and rhetoric of the incumbent government increasingly conflicted with prevalent public expectations. In that sensitive context, any political move to diminish public participation through pressuring civil and democratic space in the country could revoke or significantly delay the window of opportunity and even undermine the European aspirations of the absolute majority of Georgians.

The authorities announced the introduction of Russian Law precisely at that moment and for that reason. The initiation of the Bill was preceded by the intensification of the CSO smear campaign that dated back to September 2022, when Government officials began highlighting transparency issues within Georgian non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

On the 13th of September, 2022, the then-chairman of the Georgian Dream party, Irakli Kobakhidze, first mentioned the problem of the lack of transparency of the funding within NGOs. He spoke of the risks of the largest NGOs’ lack of transparency as they are actively involved in the country’s political processes and, as such, claimed that the public deserves total transparency on who is funding them and whose agenda they are carrying out. Additionally, Kobakhidze claimed that no current legislation obliges these organizations to declare any information regarding their funding sources. Throughout the following months, government officials and spokespersons made numerous similar statements, alluding to the pressing issue of NGOs’ transparency.

By December 2022, discussions culminated in the Bill’s drafting, setting the stage for a protracted struggle between the government and civil society. In February 2023, the Bill was officially introduced in the Parliament for deliberation. Immediately, civil society began working to prevent the Bill‘s implementation by mobilizing organizations, youth movements, and activist groups and creating a strategy to combat the governmental narrative.

Russian Law in a Nutshell

The Bill, mirroring Russian legislation, aimed to curtail the influence of civil society and independent media critical of the government. Under the guise of ensuring transparency, the Bill sought to stifle dissent, jeopardize European integration, and undermine democratic values. By labeling NGO employees as “foreign agents,” the government sought to delegitimize and marginalize voices advocating for accountability and transparency. The label would apply to non-entrepreneurial legal entities, broadcasters, and print and internet media outlets that receive funding of more than 20% of gross revenue in a calendar year from a foreign power (an entity related to the foreign country’s government/operated outside Georgian legislation). This included both monetary and non-monetary assets such as property.

Registration was mandatory for entities with the National Agency of Public Registry, which operates under the Ministry of Justice. Please do so to avoid a fine of 25,000 GEL (around 10,000$) and not release an organization from the stipulated obligations, which could result in repeated and unlimited fines. At the same time, the entities were required to provide information on the source, amount, and purpose of the received assets from foreign powers, and the Ministry retained discretion to request further inquiries into organizational activities, including personal information.

The Georgian Dream conceived Russian Law as an effective instrument to silence critical voices and abolish public participation in political decision-making by capturing civil space. The vague language and terms used in the Bill aimed to allow the governmental institutions enforcing the law to interpret the necessary measures to their advantage. If adopted and implemented, the law would allow these institutions to:

1. Restrict or halt the functioning of civil society organizations indefinitely;
2. Demand any information that would require excess resources from these organizations to provide (the Bill did not specify precisely what information these organizations were required to provide, which allowed governmental institutions to demand virtually any info);
3. Assign an officer to monitor the organization and all of the organization’s affairs indefinitely if the State institution is deemed to do so;
4. Demand sensitive and private information whenever the State entity deemed it necessary, which endangered the confidentiality of any beneficiary that utilizes resources from those organizations.

If adopted and implemented, the law would affect more than thirty thousand employees of various non-governmental organizations, independent media companies and their consumers, social workers that the government does not employ, beneficiaries of these organizations such as children, women, persons with disabilities, scientists, farmers, students, IDPs, homeless persons, prisoners, and multiple other vulnerable groups.

Civil Society – The Unconventional Mission

Georgian civil society’s coordinated response proved instrumental in defeating the Bill. Georgian CSOs found themselves facing an unconventional mission – to operate in the uncharted territory of information warfare as a significant counter-disinforming actor, to promote civil unity in the face of an existential threat to democracy and the shared European aspirations of Georgians. Success required organizing and acting at the highest possible level of coordination, speaking in one voice through strategic communication rather than traditional public relations. It required reaching domestic and international audiences, rallying international support, and ensuring the legal protection of activists against political intimidation – all while in crisis management mode.

In fact, through strategic communication, international outreach, and legal initiatives, Georgian civil society organizations galvanized public opposition and garnered international support. By uniting disparate groups under a common cause, civil society demonstrated its resilience and capacity to safeguard democratic principles.

Moreover, initially framed as a response to transparency concerns, the Bill soon faced backlash for its authoritarian overtones. Attempts to liken the bill to US legislation fell flat as its resemblance to Russian legislation became apparent. Therefore, the Bill became referred to as the “Russian Law that convinced even the Georgian Dream supporters that the chosen course of action would put Georgia years behind in its attempt to join the Euro-Atlantic structures. According to a survey by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), almost 53% of the electorate was against implementing the initiated Bill. This achievement is mainly attributed to the enormous effort made by the  Georgian civil society to engage the successful strategy of establishing ad hoc working groups that would focus on specific initiatives. In particular, four groups were established to maximize the effect of the pushback and mobilize the public protest:

1. NGOs and Regional Organizations Coordination Group: directly communicated with regional organizations and activists; organized meetings and discussions to inform them of the ongoing campaigns and ensure their involvement; created communication platforms through social media to connect as many NGOs as possible and to facilitate the exchange of information.
2. Strategic Communications Group: defined communication strategies for the campaign; conducted research on traditional media and social media and analyzed patterns of engagement; created familiar narratives and messages to share and use in the campaign; created and spread media products to raise awareness of the devastating implications of the Bill.
3. International Relations Group: created a strategy to communicate with international partners, the diplomatic corps, and relevant international organizations; conducted international visits and raised awareness of the risks of implementing the Bill.
4. Strategic Legal Proceedings Group: collected information on potential legal initiatives similar to the initiated Bill; shared the information with the group; created a legal aid network for activists and partner organizations to provide free legal aid.

Analysis of the Success of the Campaign

The campaign’s success rested on international pressure, internal dissent, and public mobilization. The collective, coordinated actions were practical as they utilized international pressure in the form of communicating with diplomats and gaining their open support against the Bill; the internal pressure in the form of support from the opposition inside the parliament and their attempt at hindering the parliamentary sessions that aimed to pass the Bill; and additional pressures in the form of communicating and coordinating with activist groups to plan effective, continuous, and unrelenting campaigns, as well as disseminating content and resources on the harmful implications of the Bill through social media, conventional media, and other mediums of communication.

Eventually, civil society forced the government to retreat by leveraging these forces, reaffirming Georgia’s commitment to democratic governance. However, lingering government rhetoric threatens to undermine public trust in civil society, necessitating ongoing vigilance to protect democratic institutions.

Governmental Response

The concentrated efforts and strategic application of pressure on the ruling party led to the government’s withdrawal of the Bill. On March 9th, 2023, the Georgian Dream Party issued a statement declaring the retraction of the proposed Bill in light of escalating public discontent. Nevertheless, the government persisted in asserting the Bill‘s purported benefits and necessity, framing it as a measure in the public’s interest.

In their announcement, the Ruling Party reaffirmed their endorsement of the failed legislation. They pledged to dialogue with constituents whom opposition groups allegedly misled to elucidate the Bill‘s merits and core objectives. Emphasizing the imperative for heightened transparency regarding foreign influence, they committed to clarifying the true intent of the proposed legislation to the public while leaving open the possibility of similar future initiatives.

The Georgian Dream further attempted to undermine the public mobilization around the collective protest by invoking familiar messages of civil organizations operating to undermine the national identity, painting them as the enemies of the Orthodox Church and accusing them of aiming to overthrow the government. In one of his statements addressing the protests, the then-Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili referred to the protesters (who primarily consisted of young people and students) as “Satanists” and enemies of the Orthodox Church. However, to avoid losing the support of a significant number of their voter base, the government later acknowledged the “genuine protest of law-abiding citizens,” as the radical opposition had misled them into believing the Bill was Russian.

To appease their voters, the Georgian Dream members began making statements on distinctions between the radical opposition and the well-meaning, misled citizens. Irakli Kobakhidze claimed that the campaign against the proposed Bill was built on falsehoods, and most protesters had not even read it. 

Implications, Lessons Learned, and the Current State of Affairs

The victory of Georgia’s Civil Society has reset the stage in Georgian politics. Safe limits for the government’s political action have been redrawn, and transparent red lines have been drawn again. Straightforwardly, attempts to silence critical voices and abolish open democratic debate and public participation through fast-track imposition of a Russian-style system have failed. Massive disinformation efforts could not overpower the national consensus over the country’s European future. Through a spectacular display of grassroots unity, citizens united across all lines of divide and difference in opinion, making it clear – that Georgia is Europe, and no one can play by Putin’s playbook here.

Through a “trial by fire” in 2023, Georgia’s civil society grew more robust, and there was significant learning in the process: the confidence level in CSOs increased among the general public and the international community. A powerful precedent of achieving significant goals through effective coordination has been set, boosting confidence among civil society activists and leaders. CSOs adopted approaches and techniques of strategic communication, which, in technical terms, were a precondition to victory.

Perhaps most importantly, achieving victory through genuine broad solidarity of citizens helped decrease anomie, apathy, and division cultivated through massive disinformation efforts. It provided evidence-based hope that citizens could choose, effectively protect, and eventually achieve a better democratic European future for their country.

The game remains the same in this new post-Russian Law reality: civil society promotes broad unity and engagement in reforms to lead to Georgia’s eventual Euro-Atlantic integration. At the same time, the authorities desperately seek points of friction to reap the benefits of public division in the election year.

What has changed is the “contact line” on the battlefield – pro-democracy forces have advanced and gained more ground they are determined to protect and expand. As all shadows are lifted, it becomes evident that Georgia still stands on the right side of history.

* The Civil Society Foundation expresses its gratitude to Giorgi Chitidze, Human Rights Program Manager at CSF, and former intern, Lika Gegenava, for their invaluable contributions to this long-read paper.

[1] https://www.iri.org/news/iri-georgia-poll-finds-support-for-eu-accession-high-weariness-of-russian-presence-lack-of-faith-in-political-parties/

[1] https://tabula.ge/ge/news/691265-kobakhidze-qvelaze-mdidari-ngo-ebis-kharjebi

[1] https://parliament.ge/legislation/25876

[1] https://netgazeti.ge/news/671206/

[1] https://gd.ge/show-news/1657/„ქართული-ოცნების“-პოლიტიკური-საბჭოს,-„ხალხის-ძალისა“-და-საპარლამენტო-უმრავლესობის-ერთობლივი-განცხადება?lang=ge

[1] https://gd.ge/show-news/1659/„ქართული-ოცნების“-თავმჯდომარის-ირაკლი-კობახიძის-განცხადება?lang=ge