• Opinion by Andrew Firmin (London)
  • Interpress service

Team in Russian style

A proposed law on “foreign agents” would have required civil society organizations (CSOs) and media in Georgia receiving over 20 percent of funding from outside the country to register as a “foreign agent.” Failure to comply would have been punishable by fines and even prison terms.

Proponents of the law, including Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, argued that it was based on one passed in the United States in 1938. The American law was introduced to control the insidious spread of Nazi propaganda in the run-up to World War II, and was not aimed at CSOs.

For civil society, it was clear that the source of inspiration was much more recent and closer to home: Russia’s 2012 law, since extended several times, allowing the state to declare a “foreign agent” any person or organization it deems to be under foreign influence. The law has been widely used to stigmatize civil society and independent media. It has been imitated by other repressive states looking for ways to stifle civil society.

In Georgia, as in Russia, the terminology “foreign agent” implies deep espionage and treason. Any organization to which it is applied can expect to be immediately viewed with suspicion. This meant that the law would stigmatize civil society organizations and media organizations.

Worryingly, the proposed law was not an isolated incident: the government has increased rhetoric about groups “opposing the interests of the country” and the need to save Georgia from foreign influence.

The original proposal for the law came from a populist political faction, People’s Power, which split from the ruling party, Georgian Dream, but works in coalition with it. People’s Power has a track record of criticizing foreign funding, especially from the United States, like that claims undermines Georgia’s sovereignty and has accused civil society organizations and the main opposition party of being US agents.

CSOs insist they already adhere to high standards of accountability and transparency, making further regulation unnecessary. They point to the crucial role that civil society has played over the years in establishing democracy in Georgia, providing essential services that the state cannot provide and helping to introduce important human rights protection.

This work necessarily requires financial support, and since there are few resources within Georgia, it means foreign funding, including from the European Union (EU) and other international bodies – sources from which the government is also happy to receive funding.

The power of protest

The extent of the reaction surprised the government. Many states around the world have enacted repressive civil society laws, and it is often difficult to get the public interested. But the issue broke through because of the greater concern many people have about Russian influence, heightened by the war against Ukraine.

Russia is an ever-current issue in Georgian politics. The two countries went to war in 2008, and two breakaway parts of Georgia – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – demand autonomy and receive heavy Russian support. Georgian Dream, founded by billionaire business magnate Bidzina Ivanishvili, has an official policy of pragmatism towards Russia while cultivating ties with the EU – but opponents accuse it and People’s Power of being too close to Russia.

Many see the country’s future as lying within a democratic Europe and fear a return to Russian rule. This made the proposed law a fundamental issue of national identity.

That is why, when parliament began debating the bill in early March, thousands gathered over several nights, many waving Georgian and EU flags and chant “no to the Russian law”.

When the bill passed the fast first reading, it sparked some violent clashes. Some people threw stones and the police reacted disproportionately with tear gas, stun grenades, pepper spray and water cannon. But people continued to protest and the government feared that the situation could spiral out of its control. So, at least for now, it backed off.

What next?

The immediate threat may have passed, but it is not over. The government has not said the law was a bad idea, just that it failed to properly explain it to the public and withdrew it to reduce confrontation.

Georgia was one of three countries that applied to join the EU after the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While the other two, Moldova and Ukraine, were quickly granted EU candidate status, Georgia was not.

The EU mentioned the need for both economic and political reforms. This includes measures to reduce corruption, organized crime and oligarchic influence, improve the protection of human rights and enable civil society to play a stronger role in decision-making processes. By introducing the proposed law, the government took steps further away from the EU and made it clear that it does not trust civil society.

This raises concerns that the bill could return in some revised form, or that other restrictions on civil society could be introduced. In many countries, the kind of verbal attacks on civil society recently made by the government have led to restrictions.

But Garibashvili should pay more attention to the message of the protests. By taking to the streets, people told the government they are paying attention and disagree with its current direction – forcing it to back down. Civil society has demonstrated its power, and deserves to be listened to rather than treated with suspicion.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS editor-in-chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS lens and co-author of Report on the state of civil society.

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© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service