‘Russian Law’ 2.0: Unlawful and Anti-Constitutional

Howard Pyle: Marooned // Public domain

The Georgian government, ruled by an informal leader (recently branded a “Puppet Master” by the Financial Times), adopted the Law on Transparency of Foreign Influence. The Georgian Dream party claims that the country is facing a threat from agents of foreign influence, particularly from a “Global War Party” that includes local non-government and international organizations (including our organization, the New Economic School, which was founded in 2001).

The ruling party has made unsubstantiated claims that these groups have attempted to incite revolutions in the recent past. The legislation successfully passed its third reading on May 14 and is now awaiting Presidential approval.

The new effort to adopt the law (after cosmetically eliminating the word “Agent” from the bill’s name) was initiated in early April and resulted in a wave of large-scale protests that lasted more than five weeks. The law was introduced and approved with three hearings starting in March 2023.

Mass demonstrations, which were met by a violent crackdown from the army of riot police, forced the government to pause the process and ultimately withdraw the law with a firm promise to never bring it back. Georgians – and all of the country’s foreign friends and partners – swallowed this lie and breathed a sigh of relief, at least until the law was brazenly reintroduced with the false claims that the U.S. and EU have similar laws despite radical rejections by Western leaders.

The goal of the law is to impose restrictions on civil society and the media. The government wants to diminish the influence of these organizations before the upcoming general elections. The leaders of the governing party claim that it is only demanding transparency from these organizations and that it merely wants to know from which foreign sources they receive funding and what kind of activities they spend the money on.

This claim is false propaganda. Firstly, any grants are already registered by the Ministry of Finance and they have the same tax obligations as all other activities. Secondly, non-governmental organizations are in fact the most transparent organizations, publishing all their financial and activity statements. The law would require such organizations, if they receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad, to self-declare and register as “pursuing the interests of a foreign power.”

Therefore, it is clear that this law can only serve to discredit civil society. In one statement condemning the protests against the new law, the Speaker of the Georgian parliament announced plans to create a list of “enemies”, which immediately resulted in a number of people being severely beaten in the streets and posters being hung everywhere, including outside people’s homes, decrying “enemies of the state” and “foreign agents”.

The mass demonstrations have been led by young people, primarily university and high school students. Politicians from the opposition had less influence. On the evening of May 11, more than two hundred thousand people took to the city center, despite the day’s heavy rains. Special forces and, in some cases, officers from the regular and criminal police, repeatedly used disproportionate force, including water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and violent beatings of peaceful protesters. The demonstrators believe that this “Russian Law” will be harmful to their interests, their future, and Georgia’s hopes of joining the EU.

Why are people calling this new bill the “Russian Law”? Because it closely mirrors a Russian law on “foreign agents”, which led to the systematic elimination of independent media outlets, civil society organizations, and individual opponents. Georgians fear the same danger. At the same time, it is Russia that completely disregards the fundamental rights and freedoms of individuals.

The Georgian analog is also definitely anti-constitutional and violates several articles of the Georgian constitution, including freedom of association, the right to privacy, freedom of expression, and a special article (78) that requires the Georgian government to ensure Georgia’s European and Transatlantic integration. If adopted, Georgia will also violate several European and international human, civil, and political rights conventions and treaties it agreed to and signed.

These international agreements are designed to defend individuals against governmental abuses of power, including protecting individuals and independent organizations from government abuse and excessive demands for financial transparency. These fundamental rights and freedoms cannot be revoked even by a supermajority in a direct vote by the people. Passing the new law would likely derail Georgia’s massive efforts to join the EU, despite huge majority support for EU accession within the country, as well as isolating Georgia financially and logistically, and shrinking trade and investment. It could also mean Georgia’s political dependence on Russia again.

The leaders of the EU, its member nations, the U.S., and the UK have all generously supported Georgia since its independence and have made countless statements warning that the law, if adopted, could jeopardize – or even block – Georgia’s progress towards EU membership. Several experts (me included) have also warned that Georgia’s economy would suffer greatly.

The authorities responded to such warnings by saying that they are simply trying to defend Georgia from foreign enemies (though, of course, not from Russia, which occupies 20% of Georgia’s internationally recognized territory) and especially from what they call the “Global War Party” (they also tried to frighten the people of Georgia by claiming that somebody was pushing Georgia to open a second front against Russia). Nevertheless, most experts are sure this is nothing more than a concerted effort to stay in power after the elections.

Georgia spent almost a decade being overlooked by the West, but its candidacy for EU membership was approved last year. It would appear that Russia is not very happy with this development and is actively seeking ways to impede Georgia’s progress. However, the overwhelming support from the Georgian people on the streets over the last six weeks, along with the backing of a surprisingly large number of foreign allies at the highest levels, has encouraged Georgians to continue their fight. This show of solidarity is not only beneficial for Georgians but also for Armenians, who aspire to follow a similar path, as well as for all nations in the Caucasus and Central Asia region.

With its free market and strong governance, Georgia can be a valuable partner for Western nations. The vast majority of foreign grants received by non-governmental organizations and independent media outlets in Georgia come from the EU and the U.S. This suggests that the new law is a deliberate effort to limit funding from Georgia’s key partners such as the EU, USAID, and GIZ. The current political climate, characterized by conflicting and hostile statements towards Western countries by the ruling party, coupled with a recent strategic partnership agreement with China, leaves little room for doubt that this is nothing less than another attempt by the government to shift the country’s geopolitical alignment.

Georgia needs the Rule of Law, not the Rule of a Man.

This text was ready when the media informed about news that the parliament hid way (though members deny this) to put in the law passages that not only the organizations but their staffers can be punished for hiding information, and they can be asked several questions including about their private and sex life.

The other news is that President Salome Zourabichvili vetoed the law (though it can be broken by the majority in the Parliament). The next day she also invited French President Macron to celebrate Georgia’s Independence Day on May 26 thinking he could influence the ruling party to cancel the law.

Continue exploring:

The European Union: Why Is It the Only Choice for Georgia?

Drop in Ocean – Chinese Investments in Georgia

Gia Jandieri