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Georgia's NGOs refuse to comply with 'Russian' foreign agent law

A Georgian government propaganda poster shows Eka Gigauri of Transparency International, center of photo, alongside other civil society leaders, in Tbilisi, Georgia, June 7, 2024. The caption reads: “Our homeland can never be sold!" (Henry Ridgwell/VOA)
A Georgian government propaganda poster shows Eka Gigauri of Transparency International, center of photo, alongside other civil society leaders, in Tbilisi, Georgia, June 7, 2024. The caption reads: “Our homeland can never be sold!" (Henry Ridgwell/VOA)

Many foreign-funded non-governmental organizations in Georgia say they will not comply with a new foreign agent law that came took effect this month, setting up a showdown with the government ahead of October elections.

The law would force any organization receiving more than 20% of its funding from overseas to register with the government as a foreign agent.

Opponents say Georgia’s legislation is based on a similar crackdown in Russia and have dubbed it the “Russian law." They fear the ruling Georgian Dream Party is increasingly copying Moscow’s playbook to stifle scrutiny and criticism.

In recent months, the government has launched a propaganda campaign against many NGOs and media organizations, accusing them of acting on behalf of foreign governments and undermining the Georgian state.

Among their prime targets is Eka Gigauri, executive director of Transparency International, which has exposed government corruption.

Georgia’s NGOs refuse to comply with ‘Russian’ foreign agent law
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Across the capital, Tbilisi, government propaganda posters feature Gigauri’s face with a threatening red mark scrawled across it, alongside similar depictions of other civil society figures. The captions accuse them of becoming enriched by foreign money or trying to sell out the Georgian state.

“Personally, it's not so easy, but you are getting used to such things. At the end of the day, I have realized that I'm fighting for the right cause. I'm serving my country,” Gigauri told VOA in an interview earlier this month, adding that Transparency International will refuse to comply with the new law.

“We will not live under the Russian law here. So, that's why we will not register. And this is the decision of each and every person who works for [Transparency International].

“This is the matter of dignity for us. We are the patriots of this country. We were serving this country for many years and the people of this country. And we are not going to put on ourselves the sign of ‘agent’ or ‘spy’ who was undermining the state's interest,” he said.

Last week, the United States announced sanctions, including travel bans, against dozens of Georgian officials who supported the legislation.

“These actions risk derailing Georgia’s European future and run counter to the Georgian constitution and the wishes of its people,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters on June 7.

Miller did not name the individuals singled out for travel bans, citing visa confidentiality laws.

Supporters of the new law insist it is necessary to ensure transparency in public debate, dubbing it the "American law,” comparing it with the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act.

“I think that every country that has respect for itself should have a similar law. So, we took an example from the United States, where the government makes sure that everything is transparent to it,” said Fridon Injia of the Party of European Socialists, which is closely aligned to Georgian Dream.

Legal experts reject that comparison, noting that the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act was passed in 1938 to counter lobbying on behalf of the Nazi government, while Georgia’s foreign agent law targets nonprofit civil society organizations.

Media threat

Georgia’s free press is also in the government’s sights. Publika, a small, independent media organization that mainly publishes online, also refuses to register as a foreign agent.

“For me, the most unacceptable part is this label as an ‘agent,’ Publika’s editor-in-chief, Lika Zakashvili, said. “Because you imagine that we are a media outlet. We are journalists, and someone is coming here and wants to share their story against, for example, the government, or against some institution. And you are [labeling us] a foreign agent. You are losing your trust.

“It's just to make our work impossible here. And now the second goal … is to demonize the Western world,” Zakashvili told VOA.

The new law gives authorities sweeping investigative powers against organizations and individuals, said Aka Zarqua, executive editor at the Governance Monitoring Center, which scrutinizes government spending and conduct.

“You have to give them full financial disclosure of your own expenditures, all personal and sensitive information about your expenditures, and private communications," he told VOA. They also have the right to require from employees different information, like personal chats.”

Zarqua said the risks for a small, independent media organization like his are huge and could force it to close, “dismantling the whole civil infrastructure in Georgia.”

Some NGOs are seeking ways to circumvent the law, including registering in other European countries such as Estonia — a tactic used by civil society organizations in Russia, Zarqua said.

“The Georgian Dream Party is not the first to introduce such a law. It was implemented in Russia already in 2012, so there is some kind of experience there. So, we will try to use this experience and to just prolong our existence here as a non-governmental organization.”

Zarqua said the future of his organization depends on the outcome of the fall elections.

“It could be a very different world after October 26,” he said.