GEORGIA: ‘Civil society must be ready for any further regressive move the government attempts’

NinoUgrekhelidze GuramImnadzeCIVICUS speaks about Georgian civil society’s successful campaign against the draft Agents of Foreign Influence Law with Nino Ugrekhelidze, co-founder of the CEECCNA (Central Eastern Europe, Caucasus, and Central and North Asia) Collaborative Fund, and Guram Imnadze, Director of the Democracy and Justice Programme of the Social Justice Center.

Founded in 2022, the CEECCNA Collaborative Fund is a feminist fund that moves sustainable resources for social justice movements across the CEECCNA region.

The Social Justice Center is a progressive civil society organisation (CSO) working on human rights and social justice in Georgia. It seeks to identify the structural reasons for economic, social and political inequality, and share critical knowledge while contributing to change through democratic means.

What was the draft Foreign Agents Law that was proposed in Georgia?

On 20 February 2023, the ruling party presented a draft law on ‘Agents of Foreign Influence’. The initiative would affect any Georgian-language media and any CSO registered in Georgia that receive more than 20 per cent of their annual income from a ‘foreign power’, meaning a foundation or organisation registered outside Georgia. They would be forced to register on a ‘Foreign Influence Agents Registry’ and disclose foreign funding. If they failed to do          so, they would risk very high fines.

But the need for more transparency is an excuse, because there are already numerous laws regulating the financial transactions and transparency of legal entities, CSOs included, such as the Law on Grants and the Law on Budgeting and Accounting. There have not been cases of CSOs not complying with the existing legal requirements. In fact, most large CSOs also use their media platforms to provide annual financial reports and list their donors.

The draft law includes language that has negative connotations in Georgia due to our Soviet past. ‘Agent’ means ‘traitor’, especially if used together with the adjective ‘foreign’. It has the clear purpose of delegitimising independent CSOs and critical media by labelling us as enemies of the state, politically biased and aligned with the opposition.

The government is doing everything it can to delegitimise CSOs as local actors voicing real local needs. They don’t want the public to listen to us when we criticise the government and provide information that is true and in the interest of the country – they want them to believe that we are the ones lying to them.

This is part of a larger government stigmatising campaign against civil society and independent media, which gained momentum over the past few months.

Who would be most affected if this law was passed?

It is critical to highlight the role that CSOs have played in Georgia since we gained independence – civil society has played a key role in the democratic transition and in ensuring the provision of services the government could not provide, particularly to vulnerable groups. When the state could not fully perform its duties, it was civil society that stepped in and got the work done.

If the law was passed, people with HIV and disabilities, survivors of domestic violence, women, children and LGBTQI+ people would be among the first to be directly impacted. Programmes targeted at these groups have been created and operated by Georgian CSOs, because the government is either not interested and therefore does not prioritise this work or does not have the money for it.

Of course, as the government is not funding these programmes, Georgian CSOs operating them typically get their funding from outside the country. Domestically, there is very little interest in funding civil society; domestic funding is almost non-existent and CSOs are severely underfunded. Major civil society donors are various private and public foundations, and bilateral and multilateral institutions from the USA and the European Union, all of which maintain political neutrality. Many of them even fund the government agencies as well.

If the law were adopted, given the difficulties in fundraising domestically, CSOs would be exposed to financial starvation. Numerous CSOs would have to shut down. And this would be no accident: it is part of a very intentional attack on the financial resilience of CSOs.

How has civil society organised against the bill?

Over 380 CSOs signed a statement explaining their strong opposition to the bill. Civil society and independent media worked hard to reach people with compelling messages, avoiding NGO jargon and explaining in simple terms why this bill is against the interests of the country and against democracy – why, in fact, this bill is a Russian import, part of a trend that is quickly gaining ground across the region.

It took some effort to mobilise against the bill because civil society had been demonised for so long already, and many people did not want to support ‘foreign agents’. But our key message was that our government may have pro-Russian course, but our people do not, and we don’t intend to be part of the Russian Federation ever again. This connected with a widespread sentiment of Georgian people.

This messaging dispelled the climate of resignation that things cannot change and helped mobilise people. On 7 March, parliament passed the draft law in the first reading, but just as the bill was being discussed, tens of thousands gathered outside parliament to protest in Tbilisi. There were protests day and night, for several days in a row. This was one of the largest demonstrations in Georgia’s modern history.

The protests were repressed by riot police using rubber bullets, teargas and water cannon. At least one person lost an eye because of police brutality. Over 150 people were detained for ‘disobedience’ but later released following further pressure from protesters.

As a result of the protests, the bill was recalled on 10 March. That day we realised that if we come together, things can change. There was a spirit of resistance, unity, dignity and solidarity in the protests. People who were not necessarily politicised became interested in politics. And it all started because civil society came together to stand up against a bill that posed an existential threat.

Protesters connected in a very well-articulated way the situation in Georgia with the plight of Ukraine, and understood this as a fight against Russian political interests trying to absorb us as a country. That’s why they also showed solidarity with Ukraine, singing their anthem and displaying pro-Ukraine messages.

The way young Georgians reacted gives us hope for the future. The way they came together, the way they protested, the messages they conveyed – it was so politically consistent and coherent. They protested, they resisted, and when the protest was over, they even cleaned the public space after themselves. They were truly amazing.

Would you say danger has passed?

Parliament is currently on its best behaviour because it had a moment of realisation that this might turn into a revolution. In pushing forward the bill, the government thought there was no limit to its power, but found such a limit in the protests. A sentiment started spreading among protesters that they could fire their representatives, send them home. But the government’s targeting of civil society is not over yet – it is only starting. Although the bill has been withdrawn, the prime minister has already said that they are going to continue pushing for it. He even doubled down as he mentioned that their step will be to tackle so-called ‘gay propaganda’, another Russian import that is part of the crackdown on progressive civil society.

The government continues its campaign against civil society. Even if the law does not pass, the official narrative keeps labelling civil society and independent media as ‘foreign agents’, and the consequences of this will continue to be felt for a long time. In Kutaisi, for instance, a social justice activist saw their home vandalised, and someone marked it with a sign alerting that ‘an agent lives here’. It is to be expected that anti-rights forces will use this language as a weapon against civil society activists.

And of course, the authorities continue to use other tools they have to obstruct civil society work. For instance, Georgia has a problematic administrative code that grants the police and the courts the right to use administrative sanctions such as fines and detentions without sufficient evidence and due process. Such measures are often used against civil society and human rights activists. Since 2016, administrative fines for most common administrative offences have quadrupled. This is a serious barrier for civil society work, as it is expensive for activists to pay the fines.

What kind of international support does Georgian civil society currently need?

Georgia is currently experiencing a rapidly shrinking civic space, and the government is sliding towards authoritarianism. International solidarity and conversations on the political situation in Georgia and the whole post-Soviet region are going to be critical.

In post-Soviet countries, the influence of Russian politics is very strong. There is an actual war going on in Ukraine, and what is happening in Georgia is in a way war by different means. These are two fronts of the same fight against Russian imperialism. Understanding this is essential.

Also, we need to talk more about where money comes from for anti-rights organisations. There are very clear mechanisms to track where money comes from when it comes to CSOs and independent media, but there are none to investigate where funding for anti-rights groups such as religious fundamentalist and far-right organisations comes from. One reason is that they often don’t register as CSOs – this means they wouldn’t even be under the jurisdiction of the Foreign Agents Law if it were passed. Lots of money for these organisations is coming from Russia without any conditionalities or reporting mechanisms in place.

This is a way bigger problem than Georgia having a Foreign Agents Law. We need to make the connection to what is happening elsewhere. In Ukraine and Moldova there were also attempts to adopt a similar law and people pushed back. The logic of this law is already working in Mongolia, and it is effectively in place in Belarus.

We need more complex conversations about what we are organising against, how this is impacting us, what tactics are being used and how human rights language and spaces are being co-opted. The obvious types of support needed are spaces for such conversations and funding, because ultimately, for us to resist, we need spaces to reflect, build strategies and develop our political imagination, and we need resources, given that we are already so underfunded across the region. We must be ready for any further regressive move the government attempts. We haven’t seen the last of it.

Civic space in Georgia is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with the Social Justice Center through its website and Facebook page, and follow @SjcCenter and @niiugre on Twitter.



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