Civil society and democracy under attack in Georgia

Despite weeks of public protests across the country and international pressure, the Georgian parliament has overruled the President’s veto and adopted the so-called Transparency of Foreign Influence law. The law will seriously hinder a free civil society and free media and is one of a series of controversial decisions in Georgia ahead of parliamentary elections in October. The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation has been present in Georgia and the South Caucasus for over 20 years supporting women’s rights and feminist organisations. We are extremely worried about the adoption of the law manifesting a decline in democratic values and fear a shift towards a more authoritarian rule if the government continues on the chosen path.

In December last year, the EU granted Georgia candidate status. Now, a few months later, the government is quickly moving away from the EU’s requirements on human rights, gender equality and democratic standards. The mass protests on the streets, that have been ongoing for nearly two months, are not only about the specific law but also about people’s future and the direction of Georgia.

During the last weeks, Kvinna till Kvinna’s partners have witnessed violent attacks against civil society actors, protest organisers, and opposition figures including verbal intimidation, threats towards activists and their family members, and physical attacks. There have also been actions aimed at discrediting key civil society actors through posters and slander, accusing them of being “western agents”, “enemies of the nation,” and of “committing treason” through foreign funding. So far, these violations are taking place with impunity. According to reports from activists, some security forces at protests were masked and lacked ID tags, making it difficult to identify them. Protesters have also been arrested and fined, which adds to the fear and vulnerability of those speaking out.

Once the law comes into force, which is expected around late August, all local civil society organisations receiving 20% or more of their funds from foreign sources will have the obligation to register in a roster for those ‘promoting foreign influence’ and submit financial statements. Upon registration, government agencies will have the full mandate to access all information and data, even that which is protected under specific legislation, including personal information on survivors of sexual gender-based violence, identities of community members from marginalised groups, and conflict sensitive information. Failure to register will draw an initial fine of 25,000 GEL (approximately 8,280 EUR/95,170 SEK) and recurring additional fines. State agencies will again have the mandate to register organisations in a compulsory process, including based on an individual whistleblower mechanism. The law also puts an obligation on individuals engaged with CSOs to disclose all personal information, with a refusal to do so resulting in a personal fine of 5,000 GEL (1,655 EUR/19,035 SEK). These decisions will be mandatory and not subject to appeal.

We fear that these provisions will target civil society actors, including Kvinna till Kvinna’s partners, journalists, and opponents who have so far been at liberty to exercise their freedom of speech and assembly to voice their concerns. The law is seen as a tool of repression and increasing authoritarianism, as well as another indicator of Georgia’s changing geopolitical direction.

The law threatens the integrity of personal data as per both Georgian legislation and EU GDPR and is also in contradiction with the 9 steps to be taken by Georgia on its path towards EU integration—something that the EU will deliberate on at the Foreign Affairs Council in June, possibly resulting in punitive measures. According to EU officials, all options are on the table, that may also directly impact the freedom of movement for civil society actors and the general public.

While most of the attention has been directed towards the law on the Transparency of Foreign Influence, there is a list of other very worrying legislative developments that have so far gone under the radar and need international attention:

  • The parliament has abandoned the gender quota on electoral lists, which was one of the criteria under the 12 steps towards EU candidacy and which was previously extended to 2032;
  • The ruling political party has initiated constitutional amendments aimed at eradicating ‘LGBTI propaganda’;
  • New changes of the law regarding abortion have been introduced, including an extension of the wait period and mandatory consultations with a psychologist and social worker, making it more challenging to access abortion services;
  • The enacting of the so-called ‘offshore law’ , once again overriding the President’s veto, which envisions full tax exemption for offshore assets brought back to Georgia, which will have a detrimental impact on Georgia’s economy and corruption level.

The situation is changing rapidly and the upcoming election in October will be very important for the future of Georgia. Kvinna till Kvinna expresses its deepest concern regarding these alarming developments and it is absolutely imperative that the international community continue to keep up the pressure to withdraw the “Transparency of Foreign Influence Law” and support to civil society organisations in Georgia. Civil society organisations targeted under the new law will also need legal support. It is important to provide safe spaces for civil society actors, women’s rights and feminist groups to strategise, advocate and develop risk mitigation plans, and funders active in Georgia needs support in reassessing their funding strategies and approaches.

—The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation

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