Russian Law in Georgia: Objectives and Expected Consequences

In Georgia, the “Foreign agents’ Law” inspired by Russia, has been introduced. A colleague from local TI chapter, Sandro Baramidze, has put together a complex summary of what has been happening in Georgia and what are the outcomes.

Protests in Georgia against the „Foreign Agents Law“ | source: Reuters

In early April 2024, the Georgian Dream (GD), the ruling party led by the Russian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, announced that it was going to reintroduce a so-called Foreign Agents’s Law“, which had been proposed by the GD a year erlier but was later dropped due to mass protests domestically and harsh critisim internationally.

On 14 May 2024, the Parliament of Georgia adopted in the third and final reading the Law on Transparency of Foreign Influence (“TFI Law”). Although the President of Georgia vetoed the law, the Parliament overrode the Presidential veto.

The law obliges the CSOs and media owners that generate more than 20% of their gross revenues from a “foreign power” to register themselves as organizations pursuing the interests of a foreign power“ and to present to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) their financial declarations in 30 days after the entry into force of the law and then on an annual basis. Whoever does not comply with the registration requirement will nevertheless be registered by the MoJ at its own discretion.

What are the consequences of disobedience of the law?

Failure to fulfill the requirements of the TFI Law will entail some severe monetary penalties. Thus, by early October, any defiant NGO or media owner falling within the ambit of the TFI Law will have to pay in aggregate GEL 55,000 (about USD 20,000). More GEL 20,000 fines (about USD 7,000) will be added each subsequent month. Naturally, such monetary penalties may lead any NGO to bankruptcy and liquidation.

The law is no less repressive towards individuals. The MoJ may, at its sole discretion, carry out monitoring of defiant NGOs, during which it may require any individual, irrespective of his/her links with the monitored NGO, to immediately furnish any “necessary” information, ranging from confidential information such as email or banking codes and passwords to very sensitive personal data such as those about one’s health or sexual life. Each failure to comply with the MoJ instructions will result in a GEL 5,000 (about USD 1,700) fine.

The Venice Commission has said the restrictions set by the law to the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association, privacy and the principle of non-discrimination are incompatible with the strict test set out by the ECHR and the ICCPR and fail to meet the requirements of legality, legitimacy, necessity in a democratic society and proportionality. According to the Commission: “The Law, under the alleged aim of ensuring transparency, has the objective effect of risking the stigmatising, silencing and eventually elimination of associations and media which receive even a low part of their funds from abroad. A strong risk is created that the associations and media which come to be affected will be those who are critical of the government, so that their removal would adversely affect open, informed public debate, pluralism and democracy”.

A sad U-turn in Georgia’s trajectory

The reintroduction of the TFI, coupled with the Governments increasingly hostile rhetoric in relation to the West, marks a U-turn in Georgia’s foreign policy trajectory, a derail from the country’s Euro-Atlantic path, and its return to Russia’s sphere of influence. In Georgia, there is a common perception among all who is not a GD follower that the law aims to destroy basic rights and liberties in Georgia and by introducing it the GD government has blatantly defied Article 78 of the Georgian Constitution that requires all Constitutional bodies to take all measures to ensure Georgia’s full integration into EU and NATO.

The TFI Law, publicly dubbed the “Russian Law“, met harsh opposition of the Georgian public. Around 150 NGOs, including Transparency International Georgia have stated that by breaking their promise not to reintroduce the Russian Law the government departed from the Constitutional limits and altered the country’s foreign course. They said they would never comply with the law.

The rise of Georgian civil society and protests

Over two months while the Parliament was considering the bill mass protests were underway in the streets of Tbilisi and other major cities of Georgia. In the frontline of demonstrations stood not only representatives of the civil society groups and media – the immediate target of the law – and those of the opposition political parties, but also prominent public figures from intellectual, academic, artistic and sports circles, the grassroots from urban and rural areas and, most importantly, the youth, mainly representing GenZ generation.

The Government applied brutal force to suppress the protests. The police used tear gas, pepper spray, and water cannons against the peaceful protesters. More than 200 persons were arrested on the charges of “petty hooliganism” and “failure to obey lawful instructions of a police officer”. Most of them were brutally beaten at the time of arrest and later upon their delivery to the police stations or places of detention. Eventually, with few exceptions, arrested protesters were released but were subject to huge monetary penalties ranging from GEL 500 to GEL 3,000.

The TFI Law and and the Georgian government’s repressive response to civil peaceful protests caused an unprecedented outcry from Georgia’s western partners, the United States, the European Union and the individuall EU member States.

In their statements on the situation in Georgia, the EU top officials, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, EU High Representative Joseph Borell, and EU Council President Charles Michel expressed their negative assessments of the Georgian government’s actions related to the reintroduction of the “Foreign Agents’ Law” and the crackdown on the public protests.

Sandro Baramidze joined Transparency International Georgia in February 2024. He is the organization’s Human Rights and Rule of Law Program Manager. 

From November 2012 to June 2018 he was the Deputy Minister and then the First Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Justice of Georgia. In 2015-2019 he was a Substitute Member of the Venice Commission from Georgia. He has effectively continued cooperation with the Venice Commission after the expiration of his membership term. He is a member of the Georgian Bar Association and has practiced law in criminal, civil and administrative matters. He has represented his clients before the European Court of Human Rights. He has provided expert opinions on the matters of Georgian law to international arbitral tribunals. 

Sandro Baramidze has two academic degrees in Law and Oriental Studies from the Tbilisi State University. He has received in-depth training in American and International Law at the Center for American and International Law in Plano, Texas, and Trial Advocacy in the National Institute of Trial Advocacy in Louisville, Colorado.

Support from the outside

On 25 April 2024, the European Parliament passed a resolution whereby it invited the European Commission to submit an interim assessment of Georgia’s progress related to the implementation of its homework given at the time of granting Georgia the status of a EU candidate state. The European Commission is due to decide on the question of Georgia’s performance by the end of June.

The US House and Senate have initiated two bills to hold Georgian government officials and individuals responsible for corruption, human rights abuses, and efforts to advance the foreign agents law or facilitate its passage. On 23 May 2024, US Secretary of State Blinken announced a Visa Restriction Policy for Undermining Democracy in Georgia and Comprehensive Review of All US-Georgia Cooperation. Mr. Blinken said the Department of State was implementing a new visa restriction policy for Georgia that would apply to individuals who are responsible for or complicit in undermining democracy in Georgia, as well as their family members.

A question for the Georgian people

The TFI Law is not the only antidemocratic and antiliberal legislation initiated by the GD in these days. Two more are one that creates tax haven for the offshore companies, presumably those with Russian roots, and a package of amendments that ban the so-called “LGBTQ propaganda”.

Bidzina Ivanishvili is said to have captured the Georgian state. Now it looks like he has captured it with the purpose of passing it over to Putin’s Russia. Whether or not this plan can be fulfilled is a question that the Georgian people have to answer in the upcoming general election in October 2024.

 

By Sandro Baramidze, Transparency International Georgia

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