13 June 2024,   23:44
US could sanction Georgia politicians to “defend democracy”

Officials responsible for pushing forward Georgia’s Russian-style “foreign agents” law could face asset freezes and travel bans under a new bill to be presented to the U.S. Congress.

A draft of the bill, seen by POLITICO, warns the governing Georgian Dream party has “increasingly and regrettably embraced a policy of accommodation with the Russian Federation” as part of an “increasingly illiberal turn.” The bill adds that Tbilisi “has openly attacked US and other western democracy promotion organizations as well as local and international civil society while embracing increased ties with Russia in particular, as well as China.”

South Carolina Republican Representative Joe Wilson will introduce the bill as soon as Monday, according to a person close to the process. Its terms would oblige top American officials to brief Congress on “nodes of improper political influence, kleptocracy, and elite corruption in Georgia,” as well as on suspected Russian and Chinese intelligence assets operating in the South Caucasus country.

As part of an effort at “protecting and securing democracy,” the draft law would mandate sanctions against government officials and others who “have material responsibility for undermining or injuring democracy, human rights, or security in Georgia.” It would introduce visa bans for politicians and the families of politicians who are responsible for the passage of “the recent Russia-style foreign agent legislation” targeting NGOs and media outlets that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad.

The penalties would also target Georgian law enforcement and the security services, who have clamped down on protests against the foreign agent bill. Authorities have responded to tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to demonstrate by deploying tear gas and water cannon, and beating and detaining activists and opposition politicians.

On a visit to Georgia last week, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs James O’Brien warned if Georgia passed the foreign agent bill, “we will see restrictions coming from the United States” that affect the finances or travel of those behind it. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has said the foreign agent legislation entering into force would “compel us to fundamentally reassess our relationship with Georgia.”

The foreign agent bill passed its third reading in the Georgian parliament last week, but will require a majority of MPs to vote it through for a final time in the coming days after the country’s independent president exercised her symbolic veto power.

The government insists the law, which would brand NGOs that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad as foreign agents, is necessary to prevent foreign interference. But critics fear Georgian Dream will use it to crack down on media, the opposition and civil society.

Brussels has warned the law could torpedo Georgia’s hopes of joining the European Union. The EU granted Georgia candidate status in December despite warnings over backsliding on human rights and a failure to implement key reforms.

An American Senate legislative staff member with knowledge of the U.S. bill says the text was developed months ago out of concern Georgian Dream would reintroduce the foreign agent legislation after initial proposals were shelved following a public outcry last year.

“The idea is to show that we take our relationship and obligations to the Georgian people seriously, and that we will stand up for them,” said the staffer, granted anonymity to discuss the sensitive foreign policy issue, “but also that we need to illustrate a new and more robust theory of the U.S.-Georgia bilateral relationship.”

Analysts and opposition politicians lay the blame for Georgia’s increasingly anti-Western stance at the door of Bidzina Ivanishvili, a former prime minister and founder of Georgian Dream who amassed his vast fortune in Russia. At a rally in defense of the foreign agent law last month, he accused the country’s NGOs of doing the bidding of a shadowy “global war party” that was responsible for creating conflict with Russia, in an echo of Kremlin-style propaganda.

Tina Bokuchava, the leader of the largest opposition bloc in the Georgian parliament, the United National Movement, told POLITICO she hoped American lawmakers would support the U.S. legislation. “Sanctions against Bidzina Ivanishvili are long overdue, but if the measures being drafted by the U.S. are to have real teeth they must go beyond Ivanishvili and target the top tier of Georgian Dream’s leadership structure, including those who directed the violent crackdown on peaceful protesters in recent weeks”, - she said.

Georgian Dream did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication”, - writes the author of the article.