Georgia’s foreign agent law in fact looks very American

Keep the foreign money secret, they say, and that will be democratic (Photo by Nicolo Vincenzo Malvestuto/Getty Images)


Imagine, for a moment, there was a secretive Russian-backed news media organization designed to weaken the European establishment by highlighting its mistakes. Imagine that this organization was not so large as to constitute a serious threat, but big enough to stir some interest.

This is, of course, not hypothetical. The discovery of the Voice of Europe, a Russia-backed news network, recently sent Europe into a tizzy. The Russians had spent money – potentially around €100,000 – to interfere in European politics by highlighting things like the migrant crisis.

The Voice of Europe has in fact an X account with less than 200,000 followers and a YouTube account with less than 500 subscribers. But the size does not matter to America and the EU – the mere fact that a foreign power would spend money to influence Europeans before the upcoming EU parliamentary elections was enough to, in official parlance, “blow a gasket.”

All of this would leave one surprised to see the West’s response to the recent passing of a “foreign agent law” in Georgia. It has been derided as a “Russian law” by its opponents. The law will require any civil society or media organization that gets at least 20 percent of its funding from abroad to register as a “foreign agent.”

In fact, the law is similar in purpose to America’s Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), in place since 1938. FARA means that money coming from foreign sources into American political activity must be disclosed. Such restrictions on foreign funding of activities that could be considered political or aimed to influence debate are common practice in the West.

On a first read, the requirement seems milquetoast: after all, 20 percent is a decent amount of funding. But the law is important because much of Georgia’s civil society – from those pushing for education reform to so-called independent media – is run by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), many of which are dependent upon foreign funding.

It is important to understand exactly what “civil society” means in Georgia. Many organizations in civil society are inherently political without officially being “political” organizations.

For example, the Georgian organization Studio Monitor, which brands itself as an investigative outfit, have for years published dozens of investigations into alleged wrongdoing by the ruling Georgia Dream party, among others. In a free society there is no crime in this. Journalists should investigate their government.

But this organization is funded by the EU Delegation to Georgia, the U.S. Embassy of Georgia, and George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, among others. Does this mean Studio Monitor are lying, pliant to the will of their donors? No, not necessarily. But Voice of Europe was not inherently lying either when they posted statistics about violence caused by migrants.

Given enough money, anyone – especially a government which has been in power for almost 12 years like Georgia Dream – can be made to look bad. The fact is that Western-funded NGOs push a Western line. There are hundreds of these NGOs, some of which are much more explicitly political than Studio Monitor.

Many opposing Georgia’s law try to argue that taking someone’s money does not mean you will do whatever they want. But this is the kind of argument that makes sense only if you don’t think about it. When money changes hands, there is – unless it is a pure gift, the kind grandmothers give to grandsons – an expectation of getting something in return.

This has been the default explanation in politics for decades. If someone was getting campaign contributions from an industry, they were obviously going to pay it back somehow. When a cashier gets a pay cheque, they get it because they are in return going to help bag groceries. This has been a universal law essentially since money was invented. Are we to understand that the only organizations in human history to give money freely without getting anything back are the US and EU embassies?

So why has this bill been so opposed? If you know Georgian politics, you will know why. Western funding is the only way to sway the Georgian population, since the opposition – which has basically acted like a headless chicken since it oversaw the disastrous 2008 Russo-Georgian War – is a something akin to a clown show.

Let us not forget that in the beginning of this recent fracas one of the leaders of an opposition party literally punched the head of Georgia Dream’s parliamentary faction in the face and insulted his mother (ironically, that same opposition leader would later complain that police beat him up). These are simply not serious people, and without foreign money they would have essentially no hope of winning October’s upcoming parliamentary elections.

The shocking thing is that those opposing the “foreign agent law” have in effect agreed with the above framing: that Western NGOs are the only way to possibly get Georgia Dream out, and that they should be allowed to take foreign money to make it happen.

It is understandable that those within Georgia who oppose their government hold this view. They want to win and know Western money can help them.

But those outside of Georgia sending in the money are more of a puzzle. After all, Western establishments have spent much of the past decade constantly decrying foreign interference.

Early opposition to the migrant crisis in 2015 was derided as a Russian operation. Brexit? Donald Trump’s victory? All slandered as foreign intelligence operations.

Even the pro-Palestinian protests in the US were derided as a Russian operation by former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi just weeks ago. The aforementioned Russian-backed Voice of Europe fracas was a scandal, one that is still ongoing.

The thing is, it is not bad to be upset when there is foreign interference. The label of “foreign interference” should not be thrown around lightly – and the establishment does throw it out far too easily whenever something goes wrong for them – but it is, in principle, reasonable to be concerned about foreign interference in one’s country.

So why is it not okay for the Georgian establishment to question interference? Where is the line?

It would seem, for the West, to be, “When the West spends money in someone else’s politics, it is good. When we don’t, it is bad.” Yet if the European Union and America had held themselves to acting only in their national interest, this would actually be acceptable. There is no hypocrisy if one is simply doing what one believes serves their own interest.

But since end of Cold War, the West has endeavoured to take a broader approach: a universalism which has dictated that the world must abide by Western values. But what “Western values” means keeps shifting; the term has gone from indicating a basic respect for general liberties to support for constantly changing LGBT ideologies.

That is in turn fuelling resistance from the non-aligned movements and states which are not already in the West’s orbit. Just recently, Niger kicked U.S. forces out for being “disrespectful,” lecturing their government over how to behave. And anyone with eyes can see a map of countries which have levied sanctions on Russia over Ukraine is essentially just comprised of North America and Europe, along with sporadic pro-Western states. The eagle-eyed might notice that Georgia Dream-run Georgia is among those which have sanctioned Russia.

With all of the aforementioned considered, it would therefore seem that Georgia Dream, in passing this legislation, is simply attempting to ensure that foreign money cannot play a secret role in their country’s political process. They are not even attempting to ban foreign money; the law just requires that those who derive a large portion of their funding from foreign sources make it clear to people where their money comes from.

Yet Western leaders pretend to be shocked, unable to comprehend why Georgia would want to do something like copy America’s FARA. They shouldn’t be so surprised. With all of the West’s panic over foreign interference in recent years, one could almost say that Georgia learned it from us.