Facing some of the largest protests in the history of the country of Georgia, the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party in the capital Tbilisi is laying a theatrical trap for American and European diplomats. GD appears to be waging a campaign to demoralize protestors and pretend that Georgia is in a conflict with the West rather than a struggle between a population and its rulers. The best way for the West to stand behind the Georgian people, who overwhelmingly reject the Russia-style legislation that passed through parliament yesterday, is to refuse to accept its legitimacy in any way, shape, or form — including with any amendments or implementation promises offered by GD — and to sanction those responsible for it, as the U.S. State Department threatened to do yesterday “if the law goes forward out of conformity with EU norms.”

The controversial Georgian “foreign agents law” is meant to repress civil society and media, the only remaining checks on an illiberal government, even as the country ostensibly is seeking membership in the European Union. The legislation mirrors a Russian law by labeling civic-minded nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and independent media as “bearing the interests of a foreign power” if they receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad, even if their apolitical work relates to charity, development, rule of law, or building nonpartisan capacity for a level political playing field. In addition to imposing a cynically misleading stigma on NGOs, the law would authorize the GD government to conduct investigations into them, access their personal data, demand onerous reporting, and levy crushing fines, restrictions and prison time on media and civic groups considered noncompliant.

Moreover, Georgia’s law is framed to target money from the Western countries that have traditionally been allies and friends of Georgian democracy, rather than from Russia, the nation militarily occupying a quarter of Georgia and consolidating its malign influence through multi-pronged covert operations, including secretly funding political parties and oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili who rules the country by, in turn, bankrolling GD.

Stage-Managing for the Narrative

EU leaders in Brussels have warned that the law “in its current form” is “a serious obstacle on the way of Georgia’s EU integration,” which helps explain why this issue mobilizes so many people in a country where approximately 80 percent of the population supports joining the EU rather than being swallowed up by Russia. But GD is adept at manipulatively stage-managing European diplomats as set pieces in a narrative campaign meant to break the spirit of a restive Georgian opposition or public. Three examples illustrate the pattern.

First, after a similar law was introduced last year when Brussels was dangling the popular prospect of EU candidacy, GD backed down and was rewarded later in the year with EU candidacy status, albeit with conditions that GD would never meet because it would complicate their ability to corruptly tilt the electoral playing field to their advantage. Having pocketed that European concession as if it’s an irreversible bureaucratic step, GD is now acting as if there’s nothing Europe can do to stop Tbilisi as it pivots decisively toward Moscow’s orbit.

Second, following irregularities in the 2020 parliamentary elections, all opposition parties renounced their positions and boycotted the second round of elections, urging voters to abstain. When there were protests and the opposition refused to enter parliament, GD reached for the classic Kremlin-style tactic of escalating to de-escalate: imprisoning opposition leader Nika Melia, which prompted EU-mediated negotiations over an acceptable resolution. That resulted in provisions for snap parliamentary elections, the release of Melia from prison, and the return of opposition MPs to parliament. By allowing itself to get sucked into this internal political mediation, the EU unwittingly legitimized a fraudulent election and deflated the opposition.

Third, during the ongoing struggle over the Russian law, there have been moments when GD has used European diplomats like propaganda props to legitimize an embattled regime. The most salient example was a photo op of the EU ambassador cutting a ribbon with top GD leaders after several nights of GD’s hired thugs beating up protestors and opposition leaders.

Because that’s what diplomats do: cut ribbons for the camera, mediate resolutions to political crises, and welcome a country to become an EU candidate. Sometimes only in hindsight do they realize that involvement of foreign partners in problem-solving risks robbing the public of agency by going over their heads at a critical moment. Moreover, diplomats’ natural instincts are to support bilateral relations with the host government and engage on technical aspects of policy matters. That raises a present risk related to something else diplomats do: negotiate over what amendments would sufficiently “soften” controversial legislation.

Selling `Amendments’ to Buy Time

GD is currently leading EU diplomats to believe that a solution is in the offing through a legislative process of amending the recently passed version of the bill after Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili vetoes it, which she has vowed to do. GD has enough votes in parliament to override the veto — the final legislative step that is expected in the coming weeks — and Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze says the government is not planning any “substantial changes” to the bill. But the Georgian Parliament Speaker Shalva Papuashvili says that recommendations such as those advised by Europe’s Venice Commission will be discussed and the bill can be amended.

The whole point of GD’s gambit on amendments is to buy time for protests to lose steam and trick just enough Western diplomats to engage in talks about a legislative compromise that would inadvertently legitimize the regime and break the spirit of the people on the streets. Moreover, GD’s tactical trap of trying to win over Western diplomats with amendments is a mere component of its broader strategic trap wherein GD is trying to shape this as a conflict between them and the West, rather than them and the Georgian people. Both GD and the Kremlin accuse the West — without a shred of sound evidence — of funding and fomenting the protests as a coup attempt.

The safe ground for Western diplomats is simple. Just as clearly as State Department briefers once warned then-President Trump, “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” Putin after an illegitimate election, U.S. and EU diplomats should now be advised: DO NOT NEGOTIATE. Accept nothing short of GD withdrawing the law entirely. Urge GD to respect the will and rights of Georgians. Show the Georgian people that the West stands with them by sanctioning Ivanishvili and Kobakhidze  and threatening to designate all parliamentarians who vote to override the veto and make the Russian law Georgian law.

Financial sanctions must be imposed quickly, as DG recently passed an offshore finance law that helps them launder money and hide assets to evade sanctions. Visa bans are also needed for GD leaders and their families, as they love to vacation and study in the West. The EU should follow the lead of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jim O’Brien, who warned in Tbilisi yesterday that if the law goes forward, the United States will sanction the individuals responsible and their families. And the EU should plainly warn that it will revoke visa-free travel and suspend Georgia’s EU candidacy if GD does not peacefully and fairly resolve its differences with the Georgian people.

This is a time for Western governments to listen to the masses of Georgians who are on the streets begging partners and allies to stand with them through strength, not friendly diplomacy as practiced among liberal democracies.

IMAGE: Georgian law enforcement officers push protesters away from the parliament during a rally against the controversial “foreign influence” bill in Tbilisi on May 14, 2024. Georgia’s parliament on May 14, 2024 adopted a controversial “foreign influence” law that has sparked weeks of mass protests against the measure, denounced as mirroring Russian legislation used to silence dissent. The bill requires non-governmental organizations and media outlets that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as bodies “pursuing the interests of a foreign power.” (Photo by GIORGI ARJEVANIDZE/AFP via Getty Images)