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Russian soft power in Georgia: “People’s Power” and the “foreign agent” media law

Georgia continues to struggle with issues surrounding its European integration. While the country’s own government remains unsure of its next move, the spectre of Russia and its authoritarian politics continues to loom large over Tbilisi.

March 3, 2023 - Davit Totadze - Analysis

Freedom Square in Tbilisi. Photo: Ngoc Tran / Shutterstock

The use of soft power as a mechanism of influence plays a significant role in Russian foreign policy towards its neighbours, including Georgia. Russia sees the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) as its biggest threats, therefore, it actively uses anti-western propaganda and disinformation to somehow reduce the trust and desire for membership among residents of neighbouring countries. On February 24th 2022, the Russian Federation launched a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, thereby accelerating the integration of the so-called “Associated Trio” of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine with the European Union. Since the invasion of Ukraine did not go according to plan for Russia, the European neighbourhood and enlargement policy has become more active than ever, and Russian soft power has become even more feral.

Unlike Moldova and Ukraine, the European Council did not grant candidate status to Georgia in June 2022. Instead, it received 12 conditions that must be met before the spring of 2023 to receive candidate status. Due to the characteristics (such as depolarisation, de-oligarchisation, an independent judiciary and media freedom) of these conditions, everyone in Georgian society who believed in their European future knew that the ruling party would fail to fulfil them. The seventh condition for improving media freedom states that the country must “Undertake stronger efforts to guarantee a free, professional, pluralistic and independent media environment, notably by ensuring that criminal procedures brought against media owners fulfil the highest legal standards, and by launching impartial, effective and timely investigations in cases of threats against the safety of journalists and other media professionals”.

A long “to-do list”

On June 9th 2022, a resolution on “Violations of Media Freedom and the Safety of Journalists in Georgia” was adopted by the European Parliament. According to the issues set out in the resolution (these issues were also highlighted in Human Rights Watch’s 2022 World Report), various actions were expected from the ruling party. This includes pardoning, that is, releasing, the founder and director of the Mtavari Arkhi TV channel, Nika Gvaramia, who was arrested on May 16th 2022 and sentenced to three and a half years in prison. At the same time, they are to halt investigations into the owners of the opposition media outlets TV Formula and TV Pirveli. On September 7th 2021, the founder and owner of 51 per cent of TV Formula, David Kezerashvili, was sentenced to five years in prison. Tbilisi must also investigate cases of violence against journalists committed on July 5th 2021, as well as during the 2020 and 2021 election campaigns. Brussels has demanded that the organisers and perpetrators of this violence must be brought to justice. It is worth noting that there have been more than 90 registered cases of violence against journalists over the past three years. There must also be a halt to the politicised interpretation of the law on broadcasting by the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC). Issues concerning this include allowing political and social advertising to be shown during non-election periods and imposing excessively high fines on media critical of the government. Governmental attacks and boycotts of critical media have also been condemned by the EU. Finally, the government must bring an end to the anti-western propaganda used by itself and government-controlled media. This only intensified after the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War, when critical media, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and the West, in general, were systematically accused of seeking to drag Georgia into the war.

Targeting Georgian political parties is one of the main components of the Russian soft power strategy. As a result, pro-Russian political parties have begun to promote the narrative that the West wants to drag Georgia into the conflict. In addition, due to the delay in potential EU integration the amount of anti-western messages has significantly increased. On August 2nd 2022, four members of parliament representing the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party officially withdrew from it and founded a political movement called People’s Power (PP). Its main goal is to prevent Georgia from being dragged into the Russo-Ukrainian War. Over time, more people have joined and it currently has over 200 members. The group also plans to become a political party. The opposition believes that PP is simply a continuation of GD, with the only difference being that it can openly express the pro-Russian position of the ruling party. The movement is expected to target anti-western, far-right, nationalist voters.

Turning rhetoric into reality

On February 14th 2023, PP introduced its media draft law “On Transparency of Foreign Influence” to the parliament for discussion. The initiative instantly caused great concern among pro-western parties in Georgia and beyond. They all stated that such a type of law cannot be adopted in a country that is moving toward Europe. By adopting this law, Georgia would effectively forbid itself from becoming European. A statement by the Netherlands Helsinki Committee (NHC) and 40 other organisations from various countries called on the ruling party not to adopt the proposed “Foreign Agents” law, as it aims to replicate the practices of authoritarian states by controlling and restricting critical media. It would also undermine freedom of association and expression and pose a serious threat to the country’s democracy and civil society. On the other hand, representatives of PP have argued that the draft law copies the practice of the United States. In response to these accusations, Washington expressed deep concern over the proposed law. The position of the US is that such a law could potentially undermine the Euro-Atlantic integration of Georgia. State Department Spokesman Ned Price called the idea that the draft law initiated by PP was based on American laws clearly false. According to the State Department, the draft law appears to be based on Russian and Hungarian laws, not on those in the US. The proposed law would also seemingly stigmatise and silence the independent voices and citizens of Georgia, who are committed to building a better future for their society.

According to the draft law, “Agents of Foreign Influence” include all non-entrepreneurial (non-profit) legal entities, as well as all non-governmental organisations with more than 20 per cent of their annual income coming from a “foreign power”. Of course, this does not include state organisations or sports federations established by the legislation of Georgia. TV channels with more than 20 per cent of their income (excluding advertising) coming from a “foreign power” are also included as foreign agents, as well as similar newspapers and online media outlets. According to this draft law, everyone who is considered an “Agent of Foreign Influence” is obliged to register in the Public Registry in a database of the same name. The “Foreign Power” can include constituent parts of other state government systems, citizens of foreign countries, a legal entity that is not based in Georgia, and organisations, including foundations, established under the law of a foreign state and/or international law. This draft law is not the first and only targeted attack by Georgian Dream on the country’s media. The only difference is that this time it is using its satellite movement People’s Power. On September 7th 2022, Georgian Dream deputies registered the draft law “on Broadcasting” in connection with amendments to the law, which became known to the public on September 13th. The review of this voluminous and varied draft law was scheduled for September 19th of the same year. The parliament adopted amendments to the “Law of Georgia on Broadcasting” that would allow the state regulatory body to fine media outlets for airing hate speech. Watchdog groups warned that the changes could be used to impose debilitating fines on broadcasters critical of the government. However, the parliament decided to amend broadcast law despite such media warnings.

Country or party?

In exchange for joining the European Union, the union expects an acceptable degree of democracy from the state of Georgia. In general, there is a positive correlation between a country’s level of media freedom and level of democracy. Therefore, everyone who sees Georgia’s future in Europe agrees that press freedom is critical for the country’s path to EU candidate status and eventual membership. The longer Georgian Dream remains in power, the more blurred Tbilisi’s European integration becomes. Even such unfortunate events as the Russo-Ukrainian War have opened a great window of opportunity for Georgia to strengthen ties with the EU. However, due to the incompetence and absence of political will within the ruling party, this window is closing and opportunity is fading away.

Davit Totadze is a Georgia-based researcher who focuses on good governance issues and serves as president of the Human Rights Research Center (HRRC).

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