Who will be affected and what problems will they face if the so-called
Author: Teona Macharashvili
In the last several days, it has come to light that the Government of Georgia is reportedly considering passing the so-called "Agents Bill", which was introduced on February 20 in the Parliamentary bureau and which is anticipated to be adopted at the very least in April. All "non-governmental" organizations (including universities, a union with thousands of members, and numerous medical and educational institutions) as well as media organizations (including digital), and the owners of media organizations, will be required to register as "agents of foreign influence" if the bill becomes law, or else they risk being fined tens of thousands of Lari.
In this blog, we will provide a summary of principal clarifications to questions that have arisen regarding this bill:
1. Who created the law of “Agents”?
The contents of the new "Agents Bill” exactly mirror those of Putin's 2012 law: Both mandate the formation of a "register" of "agents of foreign influence," and the imposing of tens of thousands in monetary penalties on anyone who refuses to accept that classification. Putin’s Agents Law was first passed in 2012, just after independent NGOs protested Putin's takeover of power. Putin's law got increasingly tougher, and within a few years, the government was sending ordinary citizens to jail for the simple act of posting critical posts on Facebook.
In June 2022, less than six months ago, the European Court of Human Rights decided in favor of 75 Russian NGOs, finding that Putin's Agents Law gravely infringes fundamental human rights, and directing Russia to make reparations to the organizations.
Although the bill that was introduced in Georgia on February 20 repeats the same content and is essentially Putin's law, its proponents tell the public that it was inspired by the American anti-fascism legislation known as "FARA," which was passed about a century ago. Later, in response to mass criticism, the initiators of the bill - “Power of the People” revised their original claim, this time announcing that the bill is a direct translation of FARA. However, upon first reading, it is clear to the reader that FARA is a law created in a different century, in a different context, and most importantly, it carries a different essence and purpose. FARA refers to those foreign forces that carry out the harmful interests of a foreign country in secret, and for this purpose there is already a law on lobbying in Georgia, which has existed for 20 years and sees little use.
2. Who does the law concern and what awaits those considered as "agents"?
According to the existing wording, the law covers "non-governmental" organizations (keep in mind here that the majority of universities, educational, research, medical organizations, including trade unions, are registered as "non-governmental"), media, and private companies that own media. This means that the law applies to almost every citizen directly or indirectly. Why? Because there are hundreds of "non-governmental" organizations operating in Georgia. Most of these may not be popular or recognizable, yet they serve hundreds of thousands of citizens every day, building schools and kindergartens, providing citizens with free legal assistance, and conducting free mammography tests and other medical examinations, etc. According to official statistics published by the Georgian government administration, funding received from Western donors in Georgia is used for the following needs:
- Economic growth - which includes funds allocated for road/rail transport, private sector development, agriculture development, communications and trade development – 60%
- Sustainable use of natural resources - which includes electricity production, water supply-sanitation, environmental protection, and waste management – 24.3%
- Social welfare - which includes rural development, multi-sectoral education, health, social services, secondary education, urban development, professional development, higher education, employment policy, pre-school/primary education, and culture – 5.2%
- Democratic governance - which includes public administration, fighting against corruption, legal, justice, and civil sector development, conflict prevention, human rights, and gender equality) – 4.3%
- Human capital development - education, vocational training, pre-school education, secondary and higher education – 2%.
It is impossible to list everything that non-governmental organizations do with grants funded by the West in one blog, and we will write more about this matter separately; however, let's give just a few examples: Children's hospices, a seismological research center, medical assistance (for example, the hepatitis C program) on which the lives of thousands of people depend, clean drinking water, the existence of a kindergarten, roads, the rehabilitation-maintenance of ancient churches - everything we have in almost all areas of our daily basic needs, and in all aspects of national heritage, is implemented precisely through Western funding; through the work of non-governmental organizations. Without this funding, the quality of life in the country will be significantly reduced for every citizen.
If they are declared “agents,” the following questions arise: To what extent will donors and organizations agree to continue their activities in Georgia, and will there be a threat to the delivery of basic services to citizens?
3. Where and how can I find out who and what domains are financed by "non-governmental organizations" in Georgia?
Organizations financed by the West are already transparent due to the many requirements that both Georgian legislation and international norms impose on them. In accordance with Article 5 of the Law on Grants, "The legal foundation for allotment of a grant is a written agreement between the grantor (donor) and grantee, as well as the official written decision by the international sports organization on the allotment of tangible and intangible values (including monetary resources) to the sports federation or club of Georgia. The agreement must include the purpose and amount of the grant, the concrete line of its use, term of its implementation and requirements laid by grantor to grantee”.
At the same time, the majority of projects carried out by Western donors (especially in the case of large projects) include auditing and/or verification as one of the contractual obligations. Information about funded projects is available from many sources:
- Donor reports - on the OECD website;
- Reports of the Government of Georgia - information on the state budget on the website of the Ministry of Finance of Georgia, as well as the annual reports of the Donor Coordination Unit in the government administration;
- Reports of non-governmental organizations, most of which are displayed on their own websites.
In addition, for years now, the Government of Georgia has been proud to see the country appearing in various international rankings in terms of transparency, being one of the most highly rated countries for this in the region. For example, the Law of Georgia on Facilitating the Prevention of Money Laundering and Terrorism Financing requires banks to exercise strict monitoring over the purpose of various funds. As such, the financing of non-governmental organizations is one of the most transparent sectors in Georgia.
4. At whose invitation do Western donors finance "non-governmental organizations" in Georgia?
All of Georgia's legitimately elected governments have engaged in ongoing discussions to get assistance from the West. As a consequence of the tremendous effort of thousands of civil servants, Georgia was successfully given access to a number of significant funds. All projects financed by the West are subject to the principle of "official support," where no project is implemented outside of these political accords and which is based on bilateral agreements established by legitimately elected governments with Western partners. Moreover, for this very purpose, the Government of Georgia adopted the Law "On Grants" in 1996, where it created the supporting legal environment for attracting grants by Western donors, including to non-governmental organizations.
Moreover, the government recognized the special importance of financing from Western donors when it signed bilateral agreements at the highest governmental level on exemption from VAT on grants issued by donors.
5. Why did the state create a political and legal framework to make it easier for NGOs to receive grants and, in turn, why do donors fund NGOs?
Road construction and other infrastructural projects are understandable, but why does the government need to finance the non-governmental organizations that criticize it (the government) and work on such issues as judicial independence, free and fair elections, and other institutional matters? Why do donors finance the watchdog-type, critical non-governmental organizations of Georgia with their own taxpayers’ money? The answer is simple - in order for the donor to be able to trust them with more responsibility, as a state, and to be sure that the transferred funds will be spent in a purpose-oriented manner. In order for these donations to benefit the people of Georgia and, say, for example, for them not to end up in the hands of non-state armed groups, donors must be aware that in the nation receiving the benefits, all institutions that directly handle or affect the management of the grants are operating properly. In order to achieve this, a number of things are required, including judicial independence, free and fair elections, the fight against corruption, and the protection of human rights.
Nevertheless, beyond purpose-oriented donations, why does the West wish to uphold the rights and wellbeing of the people of Georgia? For the same reasons that you would want your neighbor to refrain from assaulting their family members, littering in their yard near yours. This concept is evident in the name of one of the primary political frameworks on which Georgia receives funding from the European Union - The "European Neighborhood Policy".
In order to benefit both the state of Georgia and its citizens further, non-governmental organizations in Georgia are funded by donors who are invited by the elected government of the Georgian people.
6. Who are the initiators of the “Agents Bill” in Georgia?
It is interesting that the primary proponents and initiators of the "Agents Bill” had positions in organizations that would be labeled as foreign agents under the new law if adopted. We won't go into further detail because the Georgian Parliament's website has access to all relevant material (which, by the way, was created with the funding of the United States of America, unlike the website of the government administration - which was created with funding from the European Union).
7. Why "non-governmental organizations" and not Russian businesses?
And finally, a question many have asked: Given that a total of 796,638 (nearly a million) Russian citizens have entered Georgia since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, 5,990 of them have registered as individual entrepreneurs, and 429 of them have registered LLCs, of whom we know nothing, why does the government see more of a threat in non-governmental organizations that are lawfully and legitimately funded by the West?
Adoption of the Putin-style law of “agents” is one of the most dangerous and detrimental developments for independent Georgia, one that will have a negative impact on every person living here. The Russian experience demonstrates how this very law has destroyed even the tiny degree of freedom that the country had. If the law is passed, the quick and serious persecution of democratic society can be anticipated. Moreover, adoption of the law may endanger many projects that provide for basic needs of the population in geORGIA. Therefore, in this scenario, the loss of billions in funding would significantly worsen our citizens’ lives, as the "agents" law would likely prevent people from receiving medical, educational, and many other benefits. In the end, the law would harm Georgia's social and economic ties with Europe, prevent visa-free travel, damage membership chances, and increase Georgia's dependence on Russia.
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