Georgian opposition see new law as ‘tool for election fraud’

Georgia parliament overrides presidential veto, adopts 'foreign influence' law
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Fears are rising in Georgia that the ruling party will use a divisive new law tightening controls over NGOs and journalists to secure another victory in upcoming elections.

The “foreign influence” bill pushed through parliament by the Georgian Dream party has sparked weeks of unprecedented mass demonstrations and drawn criticism from the European Union and the United States.

Its critics and political observers say the new rules could be leveraged by the ruling party — already in power for over a decade — to silence dissent ahead of October parliament elections.

“This will cast a shadow on the electoral process, as an election can’t be considered free and fair when civil groups and independent media are suppressed,” said Eka Gigauri, the executive director of Transparency International-Georgia.

“Georgian Dream is creating a governance system devoid of critical media or civil groups capable of raising their voices against democratic backsliding in general and electoral violations in particular,” she told AFP.

The furor over the law is being fuelled both by anger and fear that ex-Soviet Georgia is being derailed from its path towards Europe and instead returning to Russia’s orbit.

Moscow, which militarily backs separatist regimes in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, has used similar laws to silence dissenting voices.

But the Caucasus country’s government insists it is committed to deepening ties with Brussels, and says the law will improve transparency of funding in civil society.

The bill would oblige rights groups and media outlets that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as “organisations pursing the interests of a foreign power.”

“The fact that the law was adopted months before the elections might suggest that Georgian Dream is planning to hold ‘elections without elections,’ targeting those groups who monitor electoral violations,” independent political analyst, Gela Vasadze, told AFP.

Opposition politicians have also voiced more explicit fears that the law could be used by authorities to throw a shroud over the election process.

“Georgian Dream understands that it would lose power should the elections be free and fair, and Georgia’s vibrant civil sector can act against electoral violations,” said Tina Bokuchava, a leader of the opposition party United National Movement.

The opposition party’s founder, Mikheil Saakashvili, who was prime minister when Russian forces invaded during a brief 2008 war, has been detained on abuse of office charges that he denies.

“That’s why they adopted the law ahead of the elections, hoping to use it as a tool for silencing critical voices,” Bokuchava added.

Nika Gvaramia from the opposition Akhali party also claimed Georgian Dream could use the law to limit oversight on the vote, and that it would move the country closer to the Kremlin.

“Isn’t it indicative, that similar laws were initiated almost everywhere Russia wields significant influence: Kyrgyzstan, Slovakia, Serbia?” he added.

Georgian Dream has argued the law will defend the country’s sovereignty from unwanted foreign influence and denied leaning towards Moscow.

President Salome Zurabishvili, who is at loggerheads with Georgian Dream, initially vetoed the bill. But parliament, which is controlled by Georgian Dream, voted to override her veto on Tuesday.

She has urged the opposition to unite against the government and urged sweeping electoral, judiciary, and law enforcement reforms.

Analyst Vasadze said that Georgian Dream’s determination to pursue the legislation “indicates that Georgia is under significant Russian influence.”

“It is a symptom of a grave and longstanding illness — Georgian Dream’s fear of losing power and its willingness to sacrifice Georgia’s interests to remain in control.”

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Agence France-Presse (AFP) is a French international news agency headquartered in Paris, France. Founded in 1835 as Havas, it is the world's oldest news agency.

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