How ‘Foreign Agents’ law in Georgia can affect peace dialogue? | Interview with Medea Turashvili

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The law on foreign agents and peace dialogue

The Parliament of Georgia has adopted the so-called law “On Foreign Agents,” which directly affects organizations working towards peace policies. A similar law is planned to be adopted in Sukhumi, which civil society has been opposing since 2014.

In connection with recent demonstrations in Tbilisi, there have been reports in the media that the Georgian Dream party will try to quell the dissatisfaction of the pro-Western part of society by raising the issue of territorial integrity before elections.

How will the law affect informal peace dialogue? Should we expect that Georgian Dream will propose territorial integrity instead of Western integration? What does solidarity with part of Abkhaz society mean for participants of the Tbilisi demonstrations? Conflict researcher Medea Turashvili answers these questions from the perspective of the Georgian-Abkhaz dynamic.

Georgia now has its own “foreign agents” law, which was followed by significant public protest. Apart from its general impact on civil society, how might this law affect peacebuilding efforts?

In 2008, when Georgia enacted the “Law on Occupied Territories,” government officials ceased direct dialogue with their colleagues from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But civil organizations, to avoid the complete isolation of Georgian, Abkhazian, and South Ossetian societies from each other, continued the dialogue.

This law constitutes a direct blow to Georgia’s peace policies and to civil dialogue between it and Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

This dialogue, also known as public diplomacy, remains a channel of communication between societies divided by conflict, while other opportunities for relations, such as official negotiations or movement along the occupation line, weaken with each passing year.

The EU and its member states, as well as the US and UK, have long been political supporters and financial guarantors of Georgia’s peace policies, negotiations, conflict transformation, civil dialogue, humanitarian programs, and development.

Therefore, this law constitutes a direct blow to Georgia’s peace policies and to Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian civil dialogue. First, the Georgian government has opposed all of its Western partners and supporters, and has put the country at risk of isolation from the Western world. This will have a direct, negative impact on both Georgia’s European integration process and peace policies.

Given that the current Georgian government is no longer a reliable partner, Western political and financial investments in our country, including those involved in peace policies, are in question.

For example, the Georgian government takes especial pride in the Peace Fund, which serves to strengthen Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian economic ties. This fund is 100% financed by Western partners. In light of the recent policies of the Georgian government, funding for this initiative may be reconsidered.

Due to this law, the number of organizations dealing with peace issues will decrease, and the quality of their work will also decrease.

Second, Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian civil dialogue receives political and financial support from Western partners. They support this dialogue as a means of preventing armed conflict and building trust.

Following on that, NGOs work toward socio-economic assistance for conflict-affected and displaced populations living along the dividing line, serving the interests of the Georgian people and peace policies, not foreign forces.

Third, civil dialogue is based on trust and confidentiality. If representatives of Abkhazia and South Ossetia no longer have confidence that Georgian organizations can protect their personal data and confidentiality, they will simply refuse to participate due to security risks. With the adoption of this law, formats of peace dialogue may completely disappear, further deepening the alienation between Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian societies, which would only serve the interests of Russia.

The adoption of the “foreign agents” law is viewed by the European Union as an obstacle to opening negotiations on EU membership, as reported by several senior European officials. What role can Georgia’s closer ties with the European Union play in terms of peaceful conflict resolution, and what perspective might we lose in this direction?

Georgia has always understood that if Russia builds its power on the instability and backwardness of neighboring countries, then the prerequisites for peace, security, prosperity, and democratization according to European formulae are the strength, security, and existing democratic structures of those neighbors.

This is directly reflected in the EU’s Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy, which states, among other things: “Security within countries depends on peace beyond our borders.” It’s no coincidence that the Europeanization and European integration of the country have always been cornerstones of Georgia’s efforts at conflict transformation and peaceful conflict resolution.

In the defining documents of Georgia’s peace policy, European integration is seen as a guarantee of prosperity and security for ethnically and culturally diverse societies.

Unlike Russian policy, which is based on strength, war, occupation, and annexation, the EU’s political involvement in Georgia, including in the direction of peace and security, has strengthened state institutions and civil society, protected the rule of law and human rights, and contributed to the strengthening of the negotiation process, as well as to the protection of conflict-affected populations, and has promoted the expansion of social and economic rights and opportunities for internally displaced persons.

Damaging the integration process with the European Union directly harms prospects for peace in Georgia. We are already witnessing stalled democratic reforms, deteriorating human rights and media freedom, growing authoritarianism, and vivid examples of kleptocracy. All this will not make Georgia more attractive and interesting to the citizens of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

By damaging relations with the European Union, the Georgian government jeopardizes international negotiations in Geneva (where the European Union is a co-chair); special and monitoring missions of the European Union; and financial support for peace initiatives.

Will these processes in any way affect the policy of non-recognition?

The policy of non-recognition of the occupied territories of Georgia has always been supported by the EU and the USA. Since 2018, according to a special resolution by the US, no government of any country recognizing the independence of the territories occupied by Russia – Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia – or establishing diplomatic relations therewith will be able to use American budget funding.

Support from the US has played an important role in preventing recognition by Russian satellite governments. Isolation of Georgia from the Western world could reverse the wave of recognition.

The EU’s peace instruments, which it employs in Georgia (high-level political dialogue, mediation, observer missions, security enhancement, confidence-building mechanisms, human rights and development, material damage elimination/restoration caused by war, etc.), are primarily aimed at addressing the problem of the non-renewal of armed conflicts and divided societies, striving for peaceful coexistence between them.

As the EU’s involvement weakens, the risks of alienation, tension, and conflict escalation will increase. Georgia will lose important peace tools and partners in supporting peace.

Abkhaz war veteran Lasha Zukhba expressed solidarity with the protests against the “foreign agents” law in Tbilisi, which caused a significant resonance in Abkhaz society. How do you assess Zukhba’s position and the excitement following this event?

Abkhaz society has long lived under direct pressure from Russia and witnessed Russian political, economic, or military support did not bring them development (let alone international recognition). Russia’s actions in Ukraine made them feel the threat of annexation.

Against the backdrop of ongoing geopolitical changes in the region, a new impetus for Georgia’s integration into the European Union has emerged, which echoes the needs and interests of their security and development.

Abkhazia needs a stable, democratic, and European Georgia to feel safer, to create a European development model, to build a democratic, free, and equal society. All this fully corresponds to Georgia’s national interests.

Lately, there has been discussion in both Abkhaz and Georgian societies and in expert circles about a so-called confederation, which Russia seems to be proposing if Georgia abandons its Western course. Is this realistic, and what danger do you see in this proposal if such a choice is indeed made?

This is one of Russia’s hybrid warfare tactics against Georgia, whose stronghold turned out to be the Georgian Dream government. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Georgian government began a special information operation against our citizens: “Western partners, Swiss banks, the ‘global war party,’ and Freemasons are dragging us into war.”

Strategic partners were branded as enemies, enemies were called benefactors, family traitors were called defenders of family sanctity, hypocrites were called supporters of the church, and so on. One of the new features of this special operation is Russia’s “aid” in restoring territorial integrity.

The absurdity of this is evident: the last 200 years of Georgia’s history have been a story of repeated deception by Russia, including numerous violations of ceasefire agreements during the war in Abkhazia.

Russia has created and encouraged conflicts between neighbors precisely because it would not allow neighboring countries to develop and progress, which would lead to their political and economic independence.

And so, as far as Georgia, Russia is only interested in maintaining the existing unresolved situation; it will not revoke its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region of its own accord. Everything else is just rhetoric.

Nagorno-Karabakh is an example of a conflict “resolved” with Russia’s help: instead of fulfilling its commitment under the treaty, Russia left its strategic partner, Armenia, on the battlefield, and the solution turned out to be the complete depopulation of the region.

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