Georgia's richest man behind 'Russia law' that will scupper country's entry into the European Union

Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the created by him the Georgian Dream party greets demonstrators during a rally in support of "Russian law" in Tbilisi, Georgia. Credit: AP

Technically it is not law yet, but it soon will be. Georgia’s President Salome Zourabichvili says she’ll veto the Foreign Agent’s Bill when it arrives on her desk, but the government has enough votes in Parliament to override her.

So after a couple of weeks of constitutional ping-pong it will be illegal in Georgia for media and non-commercial organisations to get financial support from abroad without registering it with the authorities.

When Vladimir Putin introduced a law like this in Russia back in 2012 it became the principal means of suppressing free media, NGOs and opposition parties. No wonder the Georgian opposition have dubbed it the “Russia Law”.

There is no doubt who has inspired this lurch back towards Moscow, nor how damaging it will be to the aspirations of the 80% of Georgians who say they would like to see their country in the European Union (EU).

Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man, holds no official position in Georgia, but through the party he founded, Georgia Dream, he effectively runs the country.

Ivanishvili became rich beyond the dreams of avarice as an oligarch in post Cold War Russia, amassing a $5 billion fortune from privatised Russian assets.

Since returning to his native Georgia he spent a year as the country’s prime minister before deciding that more power could be wielded behind the throne than sitting upon it. He rarely emerges from his steel and glass palace on a hilltop overlooking the capital Tbilisi, but from there has used his money and the power that it buys to steer the country back towards Moscow.

It was just five months ago that the EU granted Georgia Candidate status, an important step on the road to membership. The Foreign Agents Law will scupper that, just as it will poison Tbilisi’s relationship with the US. Putin could hardly he happier.

Police detain a protestor near Georgia's parliament building, in Tbilisi. Credit: AP

So is it all a done deal? Well that depends on how hard and for how long the protesters are prepared to fight. There are many parallels with what happened in Ukraine’s Maidan Square ten years ago.

Back then, those demanding a European future for Ukraine refused to leave the streets. The country’s pro-Russian President tried to move them with deadly force and lost power as a result. But the protesters victory provoked an intervention by Russia, the consequences of which we know all too well. There are lessons for both sides in all this.

Unlike Ukraine in 2014, Georgia already has Russian forces occupying 20% of its territory. In truth its room for manoeuvre towards the West was already pretty constrained. There will be a general election here this autumn, theoretically an opportunity to set the country back on a pro-Western course, but with its new repressive legislation in its pocket don’t expect the current rulers to concede power without a fight.

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