“I am Georgian and, therefore, I am European” – Zurab Zhvania
With the skepticism concerning Georgia’s western partners and stronger economic and political dependence on Russia, Georgia found itself on the verge of a political abyss. The turmoil has been exacerbated by the introduction of the “foreign agent law” which was presented by the People’s Power, a sovereigntist offshoot of the ruling party, Georgian Dream. If approved and passed by the majority of the parliament, the law could have drastic consequences for Georgian civil society and eventually, Georgia’s European aspirations.
The People’s Power faction announced on the 14th of February that they drafted a bill on the activities of foreign-funded organizations and would ultimately register it in the parliament in the following days. According to the legislature, the entities which are not established by the state and receive 20% of their annual revenue from “foreign sources” must be designated as foreign agents and registered with the same label. Despite the ruling party’s assertion that the law was modeled on the United State’s FARA legislature, the international society was quick to condemn such propositions and emphasized the many similarities between the “foreign agent law” in Georgia and the already existing oppressive legislature in Russia and Hungary. The law could undermine the operation of a plethora of non-governmental organizations and independent media sources and would cause insurmountable problems for Georgian civil society. We can foresee above-mentioned consequences based on empirical evidence provided by a similar legislature that still operates in the Russian Federation.
The term “foreign agent” in Russia’s vocabulary is tantamount to a “spy” or a “traitor”. Therefore, the law has no neutral connotation and is designed to oppress, chastise, stigmatize and silence the people who voice their independent opinions. When the first foreign agent law was adopted in Russia in 2012, only registered organizations were considered “foreign agents”. Nonetheless, the application of the amendment cumulatively expanded to media, associations without legal entities, and certain individuals. Eventually, the adoption of the “foreign law” in Russia severely limited the scope of civic groups and activists, including those who worked for human rights, the environment and anti-corruption. A large number of organizations even had to disband as they sought to avoid the fines, limitations and burdensome labels for not complying with the reporting requirements. At last, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2022 that Russia’s “foreign agent law” violated the rights of the groups that worked for civil society.
Based on Russia’s example, it is evident that if the proposed bill passes in Georgia, it will quell the voice of the Georgian civil society and independent media. The bill will cause setbacks and present insurmountable legal challenges for Georgian civil society organizations that aim at helping children and women, people with disabilities, workers, the youth, and individuals fighting for their rights. This malicious trajectory is well known for the countries that have already introduced “foreign agent laws.” Under this legislature, the government will have effective leverage on civil society which will tremendously limit people’s freedom of expression as guaranteed by the Georgian constitution. Moreover, it will have serious long-term consequences for Georgian economic and social development. The restrictions on civil society could coerce the younger, educated generation to flee the country, which will eventually exacerbate the already critical “brain drain” situation in Georgia. Therefore, just like in Russia, the proposed bill will render the Georgian state more authoritarian and will undermine the democratic system which is difficult to operate at times, albeit of utmost importance for Georgia’s European future.
Not only will the pro-Russian “foreign agent law” curb the operation of a large number of NGOs, entities, and individuals, but it will also cast a dark shadow on Georgia’s European aspirations. In 2022, amidst the catastrophic war that was propelled by Russian imperialism, Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova received an unprecedented opportunity to finally embark on the journey toward European integration. The Georgian society knew from the very beginning that the path that led to the desired European goal would be a long one with many challenges. At last, the European Union presented Georgia with 12 recommendations that need to be fulfilled for receiving the candidate status. Along with these recommendations, Georgia should utilize its window of opportunity and should avoid passing a legislature that fundamentally contradicts the basic values on which a European society stands. Freedom of expression, media transparency, and healthy opposition are one of the most important tenets of a truly democratic society. If the Georgian parliament votes for the “foreign agent” legislature, it will be perilous for the country’s political goals while the notion of European integration will become irretrievably defunct.
The hypocrisy is that the pro-Russian and repressive law was disguised under the veil of “transparency” by the People’s Power faction. While transparency is undoubtedly a good thing, it starts to lose its definition when it is used to justify the demonization of an independent civil society that has contributed immensely to Georgia’s development and prosperity. The civil society has always been an important and vibrant actor in the Georgian political landscape. Nonetheless, the “foreign agent law”, if passed, will be perilous for society and will derail future progress in many areas, including human rights and anti-corruption. The danger is especially noticeable when the Georgian society stands in front of an unprecedented opportunity to join the long-desired European Union.
An ominous cloud is discernible through the window of opportunity, but the Georgian society must stay vigilant and must not let the “foreign agent law” thwart Georgia’s European aspirations. Russian law is not the will of Georgia!