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'Foreign influence' law pushes Georgia away from EU accession dream, warns Michel

Mass protests have erupted in Georgia over the ruling party's plan to advance a so-called "foreign influence" law.
Mass protests have erupted in Georgia over the ruling party's plan to advance a so-called "foreign influence" law. Copyright Shakh Aivazov/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Shakh Aivazov/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
By Shona MurrayJorge Liboreiro
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The European Union has doubled down on its criticism of the "foreign influence" law proposed by the Georgian government, which critics say will be exploited to silence independent voices.

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"I want to be clear: this bill voted in the parliament – this is not bringing Georgia closer to the EU. This is the opposite," Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, told Euronews on Friday morning.

"We are disappointed that this government made such a decision," he added.

Georgia was in December declared an official candidate to join the bloc, fulfilling the former Soviet republic's long-running aspiration. The decision was "fundamental," says Michel, who now expects Tbilisi to send "more positive signals" to Brussels.

Asked if the nascent accession process might be frozen as a result of the controversial law, Michel did not go that far but underlined any developments contrary to EU standards would have an "impact" on how Brussels assesses the applicant's chances.

"The enlargement process is a merit-based process and the idea for the candidate countries – for those who want to join the EU – the idea is that they respect the fundamental common principles and values," Michel said in the interview.

"If they vote bills which are not in line with those principles and values, it has an impact on the process."

Georgia's proposed legislation would require media and non-profit organisations to be publicly registered as "pursuing the interests of a foreign power" if they receive more than 20% of their funds from abroad, a provision that many fear would be used to expose, target and eventually muzzle independent voices. 

The law would also oblige organisations to declare the income received and submit an annual financial statement.

First proposed and later withdrawn last year by the ruling party, Georgian Dream, a nearly identical version of the law was recently tabled again, prompting mass protests.

Despite the growing contestation, the Georgian parliament advanced the text on Wednesday with 83 votes in favour and zero against in a first reading boycotted by the opposition. This led Brussels to ratchet up its warnings.

"We're calling on the Georgian partners not to proceed with its legislation because it's harming Georgia," a spokesperson of the European Commission said on Friday.

"We had a similar situation last year, then the law was withdrawn and now they went back to bring it again into the parliament. It passed the first reading. This is very bad," the official added, urging Georgia's ruling party to heed the calls.

"If something is not in line with European principles and it's not in line with the ambitions to proceed on the EU path, then the consequences are quite clear. But let's take it step by step."

NATO, which Georgia hopes to join, has also voiced concerns.

It is "key for Georgia, as a NATO aspirant, to have the right framework to ensure media freedom and civil society participation," said Javier Colomina, the alliance's special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia.

"This draft is a step backwards and does not further Georgia's Euro Atlantic integration."

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili has vowed to veto the contentious legislation if it ever arrives at her desk. But her opposition could be eventually overridden by the collection of 76 votes. Zourabichvili's term is scheduled to end later this year.

The text has been dubbed the "Russian law" as it has similarities with a bill that the Kremlin introduced a decade ago to silence critical voices. Georgia has for years struggled to contain pro-Russian influence, an issue considered a major irritant in the country's European ambitions.

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Although the Georgian Dream party supports EU accession and condemns the invasion of Ukraine, it also defends a "pragmatic" policy towards Russia.

Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze, who is the party's chairman, says the law is needed to ensure a "minimum standard of transparency" among NGOs and complies with "all basic legal principles." Kobakhidze met earlier this week with ambassadors from the EU, the US and the UK to discuss the concerns raised by the bill.

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