Russian activist in Georgia warns ‘foreign agent’ law will kick-start crackdown on dissent

By Thomson Reuters May 16, 2024 | 8:07 AM

By Felix Light

TBILISI (Reuters) – Grigory Sverdlin says he has seen this story before.

A Russian activist now living in exile in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, Sverdlin has watched over the past month as thousands of Georgian protesters have taken to the streets to voice their opposition to a draft law on “foreign agents”.

Domestic critics dub the bill “the Russian law” and say it is a copycat of Russian legislation that has been wielded for more than a decade to target critics of President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.

The Georgian government says the law – which cleared parliament on Tuesday and now heads to Georgia’s president for review – is needed to ensure transparency in the foreign financing of non-profit organisations. The Kremlin has denied any association with the bill.

Sverdlin, for his part, agrees with the comparison. The 43-year-old was himself branded a “foreign agent” by the Russian government last September in connection with a non-profit he runs from Georgia advising Russian men on how to avoid military conscription to the Ukraine war.

Sverdlin fears the Georgian bill’s passage will make non-profit work difficult and give the government free licence to crack down on its critics.

“It is almost impossible to live in Russia now being declared a ‘foreign agent’,” Sverdlin told Reuters in an interview in Tbilisi.

“Georgia has just adopted the same ‘foreign agents act’ using the very same arguments. It is quite obvious that this act will be used to oppress dissidents,” he said.

Sverdlin, who previously ran a homeless charity in Moscow, came to Georgia in April 2022, shortly after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began.

He set up his current non-profit, Idite Lesom, which roughly translates as “Get Lost”, in September 2022, after Putin ordered a partial mobilisation of 300,000 reservists to fight in Ukraine.

The move sent hundreds of thousands of Russians, mostly young men, fleeing to neighbouring countries including Georgia.

If the Georgian bill passes, charities receiving at least 20% of their funding from abroad will have to register with the government as “foreign agents” and submit onerous financial reports.

Many Russians have fled abroad after the government labelled them “foreign agents”, a term which carries negative Soviet-era connotations. Nearly all Russian opposition media now works from exile.

Sverdlin says if the bill becomes law, Georgia will witness a similar exodus of its brightest young people, who have spearheaded the recent protests.

“I think a lot of people in Georgia want to move along a different path – they want to move towards European integration”, he said. “I do hope and wish the people of Georgia to protect their independence and their dignity”.

(Reporting by Reuters in Tbilisi; Writing by Lucy Papachristou in London; Editing by Alex Richardson)