Leonid Nikitinsky: The Georgian “foreign agent” law is very different from its Russian analogue [Novaya gazeta]

21 May 2024

By Leonid Nikitinsky

On a careful reading of the recently adopted Georgian law “On Transparency of Foreign Influence” and comparison with its Russian counterpart

Source: Novaya gazeta

To understand what is going on in Georgia now, you need to be in the thick of things, but I have read a Russian translation of the text of the recently adopted law “On Transparency of Foreign Influence,” and it is far from being a simple copy of the Russian legislation on “foreign agents”. This needs to be understood in order not to fall for either official or opposition propaganda.

The Georgian law does not contain the term “foreign agent”, which not only in the Russian Federation, but also in any of the former Soviet republics, has a negative connotation. In Russian translation the law refers to “organizations acting in the interests of foreign forces”, which corresponds to “foreign influence” in the Russian equivalent (Federal Law No. 255 of 14 July 2022), but here there is no sly reference to “political activity”, which the Russian Ministry of Justice for purposes of repression interprets as broadly and arbitrarily as possible.

The Georgian law understands “organizations acting in the interests of foreign forces” as any NGO, as well as “broadcasters” and legal entities owning print media and Internet domains. In this form, the law cannot be extended to individuals, that number nearly 200 in the lists of the Russian Ministry of Justice that are always increasing.

Any NGO in Georgia that during the year received more than twenty percent of “non-commercial income” in the form of money or material transfers from foreign sources, including, undoubtedly, from Russia, will be required to register as “organizations acting in the interests of foreign forces.” At the same time, the Georgian law specifically stipulates that this 20 percent does not include commercial income received under contract. This is extremely important for “broadcasters” and media owners. With regard to mandatory registration, for example, advertising revenues will not be taken into account, while in the Russian Federation, on the contrary, “organizations under foreign influence” have been completely prohibited from receiving such revenue from March 2024.

The explanatory note accompanying the bill explicitly stated: “The purpose of the bill is to ensure transparency of foreign influence… At the same time, it is important that this legislative act serves only the purpose of informing and does not restrict the entities registered as organizations acting in the interests of foreign forces in the performance of their ordinary activities”. The text of the law does not impose any obligations on the NGOs concerned other than registration, and no penalties other than fines for evading it.

It should be recalled that in the Russian Federation “foreign agents” are prohibited, inter alia, from:

  • being a candidate in elections for representative bodies at all levels (a prohibition recently introduced);
  • holding public office, being a member of election commissions or participating in election campaigns;
  • engaging in work requiring a clearance for classified government information;
  • acting as an expert in anti-corruption and environmental evaluations;
  • organizing public events;
  • engaging in educational activities; participating in public procurement;
  • receiving financial and other material support from state bodies;
  • receiving income from advertising;
  • using the simplified taxation system, etc.

There is none of this in the Georgian law – yet. Evidently, the fears of civil society, which resulted in mass protests in Tbilisi, are related to the fact that Georgia may follow the course of its former “elder brother” and start introducing similar discriminatory measures.

Judging by how harshly these protests were suppressed by the police, such fears are not groundless. But I repeat, to understand how well-founded these fears are, one must be in Georgia and understand the situation there.

Translated by Simon Cosgrove

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