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The Next Front In The Battle Over Georgia's 'Foreign Agent' Law 

At a press conference in Tbilisi on May 30, representatives from Georgian NGOs said that they would fight the new "foreign agent" law in the courts.
At a press conference in Tbilisi on May 30, representatives from Georgian NGOs said that they would fight the new "foreign agent" law in the courts.

TBILSI -- Mika Dzidziguri realized just a few years ago that people from outside the country could help Georgian society turn a corner.

UNICEF and other foreign-based donors and aid organizations were working with her and other parents of children with Down syndrome to raise awareness, correct misconceptions about children with disabilities, and help find jobs for affected young people.

Their work -- aided by international organizations that provided grants and support -- made up for the desperate lack of services in this Caucasus nation of around 3.7 million. Past research has suggested that Georgian civil society groups get some 95 percent of their funding from abroad and frequently "last for only a project or two."

"This wouldn't be possible without the support of international organizations," Dzidziguri told RFE/RL's Georgian Service.

But now she and other community-based activists in Georgia might lose that critical help, after lawmakers overrode a presidential veto to enact a controversial "foreign agent" law to publicly name, and seemingly shame, foreign-backed NGOs as "serving the interests of a foreign power."

"This law is a signal to us that if someone doesn't like our speech or statement, they can shut us down very easily," Dzidziguri said.

Critics of the new law have warned of its potentially devastating effect on the country's 10,000 or so nonprofits, active in areas ranging from antidiscrimination and childhood cancer to local theater and sheltering stray animals.

Dzidziguri's special-needs daughter, Lile, is now an adolescent, and the nonprofit her mother represents, the Georgian Down Syndrome Association, has founded two more organizations to help more kids with disabilities "live in dignity."

Since the passing of the law, Dzidziguri said that her association and its offshoots intend to continue their activities, but "we don't know whether or not we'll be registered as organizations serving the interests of a foreign power."

Legal Options

With the threat of not being able to continue their work hanging over their heads, NGOs in Georgia are looking at their legal options, helped by public-interest lawyers and legal-aid groups who, for a while now, have been planning the pivot from the streets to the courtroom.

Guram Imnadze of the Social Justice Center, a Tbilisi-based NGO that provides rights-related legal assistance to the public, told RFE/RL in mid-May that his and around 30 other groups had been working in task forces, including one to "analyze possible legal strategies."

"We'll try to use all the legal remedies in order to tackle this legislation," he said.

Guram Imnadze of the Social Justice Center, a Tbilisi-based NGO
Guram Imnadze of the Social Justice Center, a Tbilisi-based NGO

But Imnadze and others recognize that legal battles take time -- his center's own 2017 constitutional challenge of a law on secret surveillance is still pending -- and they know this can pose an existential problem for community-based NGOs in particular.

Imnadze's and around 150 other NGOs have described the registration requirement under the new law as unfair and "degrading" and vowed not to comply.

"Of course, we are not going to register ourselves," Imnadze said. "[But] these community-based organizations…can't easily declare that they won't register themselves" because it could endanger their "well-being, their existence."

Smaller NGOs were already seeking advice from the Social Justice Center well before the "foreign agent" law's adoption.

"Their main concerns and questions are about legal aspects: What kind of legal ways are there to avoid this registration, and how can they proceed with their daily work if this law is adopted?" Imnadze said.

The new law presents all foreign-funded NGOs with the same stigmatization dilemma, he said, but the penalties for noncompliance can make it "almost impossible" for smaller ones to operate.

Organizations will undoubtedly face increased administrative burdens. And due to initially undisclosed late-hour amendments, both organizations and individuals can face substantial fines of 25,000 lari (around $9,000) per month or even higher for noncompliance.

Personal Information Requests

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze and other Georgian Dream officials say the new law will promote "transparency" and national sovereignty, although NGOs were already required to disclose their funding to the government.

Even the most outspoken critics of foreign-funding levels among Georgian NGOs acknowledge that the law will ensnare far more groups than its Georgian Dream architects suggest.

"Those NGOs that steered well clear of partisan politics, tried to be mission-driven and not donor-driven, practiced genuine solidarity, and respected citizens' agency will get caught up in a policy that wasn't even aimed at them," Almut Rochowanski, a longtime civil society activist and former grant writer and reviewer in the region, wrote recently.

Protesters against the "foreign agent" law chant outside the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi on May 18.
Protesters against the "foreign agent" law chant outside the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi on May 18.

Final decisions on legal strategies, Imnadze said, will have to wait until enforcement begins. He cited the right to privacy guaranteed by the Georgian Constitution, including the proper handling of individuals' personal information.

"Nobody, including state institutions, should have unlimited access to this kind of information," Imnadze said.

Under the new law, the Justice Ministry has the power to request personal information about individuals associated with an "organization serving the interests of a foreign power," including details about a person's political views, ethnicity, religious beliefs, or sex life.

Imnadze also said that describing organizations as foreign threats simply because they receive financial aid from foreign partners is discriminatory, especially when numerous state agencies get similar funding.

Fighting The Law At Home And Abroad

One of the most pressing questions for those organizations affected by the new law is whether to fight the legislation in national courts, which are seen by many as highly politicized and influenced by the ruling party, or plan straightaway for a challenge before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), the Council of Europe's international court.

For now, the answer may well be both: On May 30, a group of Georgian NGOs declared their intention to initiate legal proceedings at the country's Constitutional Court to challenge the validity of the act. At the same time, they said, they will also file a complaint with the ECHR.

"[We] will use all domestic and international mechanisms to impede its operation until the law is unconditionally repealed," the group said in a statement read out at a news conference in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

WATCH: Georgian NGOs announcing they intend to fight the "foreign agent" law in the courts.

Those targeted by the law have already been looking to the international legal community for help. Another Council of Europe body, the Venice Commission, provided considerable international legal ammunition in a nonbinding "urgent opinion" on May 14.

It cited "fundamental flaws" in the law that "involve significant negative consequences for the freedoms of association and expression, the right to privacy, the right to participate in public affairs, as well as the prohibition of discrimination."

The commission's legal opinion also "stressed" the effect of Georgia's "foreign influence" law on civil society organizations in the context of earlier "foreign agent" legislation in Russia and a "transparency" law passed and eventually repealed in EU wild child Hungary.

The Russian legislation, approved in 2012, laid out criteria in the Criminal Code for a "foreign agent" designation for NGOs that receive outside support and has since been ratcheted up and expanded to include media and individuals. It has been used to crack down relentlessly on critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his policies, including with an amendment this month disqualifying "foreign agents" from elected office.

In 2017, five years into the Russian experiment, Hungarian lawmakers avoided using the term "foreign agent" in their own legislation, taking aim at civil society by instead focusing on "transparency."

It took three years before the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the European Union's highest court in matters of EU law, ruled that the Hungarian legislation contravened the bloc's law. It took nearly another year and an EU threat of further action before the Fidesz party of Hungary's populist right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban eventually repealed it. Experts say a newer law on "sovereignty protection" appears aimed at casting a similar pall over NGOs and an even broader segment of Hungarian society.

In its legal opinion, the Venice Commission said that the situation in Georgia is largely similar to that of Hungary, as it singles out "certain entities as 'organizations pursuing the interests of a foreign power' on the mere ground of their receiving foreign funding."

This, the commission said, has the "potential of tarnishing the reputation of such entities and creating an atmosphere of mistrust towards them."

Imnadze called "this stigma aspect the biggest similarity" between the Georgian bill and its Russian and Hungarian counterparts, and one that drives home the perils of compliance. It's also a lesson, he said, that Georgian Dream learned from the withdrawal under public pressure of its earlier "foreign agent" bill a year ago.

"The [new] version doesn't include this wording; it's substituted by the actual explanation of what the word 'agent' means," Imnadze said. "So, in that regard, nothing has changed."

Written and reported by Andy Heil in Prague with additional reporting by RFE/RL's Georgian Service.
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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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    RFE/RL's Georgian Service

    RFE/RL's Georgian Service is a trusted source of politically and financially independent journalism in a country where much of the media is aligned with the government or the opposition.

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