“Law on Foreign Agents – it’s a law not about us, not for us”

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The article was originally published on the “Echo of the Caucasus” website. The text and terminology of the article are reproduced without changes. All rights belong to “Echo of the Caucasus”. Publication date: February 29, 2024.

Should the so-called law on foreign agents go forward in Abkhazia? For almost a month now, the corresponding bill has been under preparation for discussion in parliament, while controversy in society is rife.

Yesterday, Abkhazian Facebook users were drawn to a post by member of the Public Chamber of Abkhazia, Izolda Khagba, who had not previously publicly expressed her opinion on this topic:

“As agreed with my colleagues from the Public Chamber, all this time I did not voice my attitude toward the bill on foreign agents submitted to Parliament, because it was decided in the Public Chamber to meet with various groups of people, hear their opinions, and then meet with the authors of the bill.

Of course, we only heard from part of the representatives of the intelligentsia, non-governmental and public organizations, political parties, but in full from the authors. I will say right away that after these meetings, I became even more convinced that this bill absolutely does not meet our needs, is not based on our reality, and is not justified by internal conditions.”

According to Khagba, from conversations NGOs, members of the Public Chamber learned that there have been no complaints from the authorities against them this entire time — not a single hint of violation of Abkhazian legislation, and certainly not a single criminal case initiated against them; nothing but anonymous posts on social networks. She continued:

“From conversations with the authors of the bill, we received full confirmation of these words. We even asked without specification to let us know if there are any developments that would indicate a real threat to the state from our citizens, organizations financed by international organizations. We were assured that there is no such information, but ‘there are such precedents in the world’!”

Khagba mentions that for many years no international organization could even carry out its activities in Abkhazia and announce competition for projects without coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Abkhazia. If the organization received approval, it means that the competent authorities had no questions about it.

“But then they are called unfriendly, aggressive, hostile, etc. The question arises quite reasonably, why are they allowed to operate at all? We heard that reporting on their projects does not meet the needs of the authorities.

“Thus it is unclear what prevents the accrediting party from tightening reporting requirements, making them more convenient, perhaps inventing its own form of reporting that everyone would follow. Or to determine which projects can and can’t be pursued in Abkhazia.

“Or add more control by state authorities to the already existing law on non-governmental organizations (and such a law already exists!!!). By the way, any organization after completing a project submits its reports to the tax authorities, organizations themselves initiate checks to close the project. And access to this information is available to all law enforcement agencies upon the first request. Let’s demand more!,” Khagba declares.

She also noted that many mistakenly believe that the bill on foreign agents prohibits the activities of international organizations in Abkhazia. In fact, there is nothing in it about ending the work of either international organizations or Abkhazian NGOs that cooperate with them. In practice, Khagba says, such a refusal would lead to Abkhazia losing a very large amount of assistance:

“It’s also good tax revenue, as well as thousands of jobs, about which, if lost, our citizens will protest. We also heard the hope that after the adoption of this law, 70-80% of international organizations would leave Abkhazia on their own…

“If Abkhazia in the near future loses the volume of assistance that various NGOs provide, no government will stay in power for even a year. Today the state cannot cover the needs of the citizenry.

“And no matter how belittled the results of this activity today, it would still be right to remember and be grateful for thousands of good projects, for medical assistance, for repairs in schools, for equipment, machinery, and much more. I travel to villages and I know that even with such assistance their needs are not half covered.

“And another thing: yes, I am sure that the enemies of Abkhazia do not sleep, I am sure that someone here is trying to spy, recruit, and undermine the foundations of society, because this is how the modern world order is arranged — neighboring or interested countries work together.

“And I believe that our law enforcement agencies have every ability to track these people and take measures. This law will undermine, belittle, and unfairly label our citizens. The fulfillment of the basic functions of law enforcement agencies to protect our state and sovereignty should go hand in hand with normal life, not across it.

And the law on foreign agents – this is not a law about us, not for us, but sooner or later, it may affect each of us!”

Khagba says in the Facebook post that she understands those representatives of NGOs who say that in the event the law is adopted, they will terminate their cooperation with international organizations, as they cannot allow themselves to be labeled as foreign agents, which insults their honor and dignity.

“That’s right! Because any participation in the political life of your country, any of your public comments regarding the state system, future bills, attempts to run for office, indeed anything that someone can call politics, will be considered interference on your part in the internal affairs of another state, because by your status you will be an agent, representative, spy, infiltrator, undermining element of Abkhaz society acting in the interests of another state. Just imagine for a moment being thought of this way in your homeland!”

And here are a few excerpts from a speech by  the co-director of the Center for Humanitarian Programs, Liana Kvarchelia, during a roundtable discussion on “Chegemskaya Pravda”:

“I think it’s not for nothing that a police officer who attended the meeting in the Public Chamber, if I’m not mistaken, sort of cautiously said that NGOs are training people in critical thinking, media literacy… That’s right. Of course, this needs to be taught. Only those in power who want to hide something from the people, who want to deceive the people, can be afraid of critical thinking…”

Kvarchelia separately addressed the accusations of pro-Westernism against the Abkhaz non-governmental sector:

“When they accuse NGOs of wanting to copy everything Western, that’s not true. When there is something useful for our country… Fighting corruption, more rational organization of local self-government, careful attitude to cultural heritage, waste recycling, and much more – these are things we could learn. At the same time, there are things that do not suit our mentality, we agree with that.

“But you know, they paint us as if we wholeheartedly support the West, everything it does… You know how much they love to throw such slogans, propaganda … In fact, it’s not like that.

“Please, hold up our articles, speeches at various levels, where we criticize the West precisely for its position of non-recognition of Abkhazia. But have you heard, perhaps, such loud statements from our young especially ministers – we will not allow anyone to hang the Georgian flag in Abkhazia! And who would allow it? When you were little, did we allow it?

“Our people, including us, citizens of Abkhazia who work in non-governmental organizations, did not allow it. We have always been against the policy of non-recognition of Abkhazia, against the isolation to which Abkhazia was subjected, against the imposition of so-called neutral passports with Georgian codes on us, and so on. It’s not you who opposed this, it’s we who opposed it. These things need to be constantly said.”

Kvarchelia once again upheld the complete transparency of the activities of Abkhaz NGOs:

“We have nothing to hide. We have transparent goals, we have transparent accounting. I am outraged, extremely outraged by what one of the members of the Public Chamber, who supports the authorities, said — maybe they have crypto there, maybe they still have cash…

Excuse me, what are you accusing us of? I didn’t even think of such a thing. What are these groundless accusations? Which now, for example, make me think that it’s probably you who are using such methods to hide your illegal income from our financial services,” Kvarchelia declared.

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