On the danger of the law on foreign agents for Abkhazia | Discussion

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on the danger of the law on foreign agents

Why the adoption of a law on foreign agents can become a huge problem for the small Abkhaz society? Does this law apply only to local NGOs and various international organizations accredited in Abkhazia? The government’s arguments for the need to adopt this law are blatantly inconsistent.

The editor of the newspaper “Chegemskaya Pravda” Inal Khashig discussed the problems associated with the adoption of the law on foreign agents with the co-director of the “Center for Humanitarian Programs” Liana Kvarchelia and lawyer Said Gezerdava.

The adoption of the ‘foreign agents law’ in Abkhazia will have tragic consequences, most local experts, human rights activists, and all opposition representatives insist. They oppose the draft law “On non-commercial organizations and individuals acting as foreign agents,” introduced by President Aslan Bzhania in February 2024. It’s unclear when it will be discussed.

Below is the transcript of the conversation.

“The authorities lack arguments, but they have propaganda built around false messages”

Inal Kashig: The past weeks were marked by an agenda entirely uncharacteristic of our mentality. We constantly discussed the law on “foreign agents.” There were meetings at the president’s administration, and hearings were scheduled to take place in parliament.

The foreign minister himself arranged a meeting with people detained at the border, but then did not attend the meeting.

The draft law on “foreign agents” certainly has a strongly pronounced ideological essence. There is a feeling that I’ve been plunged into 1978. I haven’t heard such a quantity of manipulations from officials in a long time.

Liana Kvarchelia: For now, it’s just a draft law, and may it stay somewhere gathering dust in the archives. I agree, the arguments presented by the authorities lack any rational basis or substantial evidence justifying the necessity of such a law.

But there is propaganda. And in propaganda, the main thing is to provide a false premise and then build logic around it. People think it all sounds logical. But if you look at the premise they are starting from, you’ll see that there is truly no rational substance there.

“The authorities are attempting to restrict NGOs because they teach people to think critically”

Liana Kvarchelia: I believe all of this is not without reason. One of the law enforcement officers who attended the meeting at the public chamber said with apprehension: “Here, NGOs teach people critical thinking, they instill media literacy.”

Indeed, this is something that should be taught. Only those in power who want to hide something from the people, deceive the people, would fear this. They would fear critical thinking.

By the way, our people are generally known for their critical thinking.

But we are forced to choose [during elections] from those who exist, and of course, there are various problems.

I have a question for our authorities – what do you want to cover up by blaming NGOs?

For example, the fact that the ministry of foreign affairs received a note from Moscow. We haven’t heard any official comment from the executive branch on this matter, neither from the foreign minister nor from the president.

We know that deputies say they have seen this note, so they say it exists. They tell us about the content. From Telegram channels and the media, we know about the content as interpreted by our deputies. This is not an unsubstantiated claim, that [in this note] it is said that Russia does not agree to not having rights as an owner.

As we know, formally it seems like the state dacha is being handed over to the Russian FSO. But it means that Moscow disagrees with not having the right to later transfer the dacha to a third party.

This is the first thing I wanted to say. But this is not the only situation causing the issue of NGOs to be disproportionately inflated, just because attention needs to be diverted from other pressing topics.

There was also an issue with the ministry of internal affairs. And not only that. There were also plans for harmonizing Abkhaz legislation [with Russian legislation]. Sergey Shamba (Secretary of the Security Council) has repeatedly said that Abkhazia was asked for this from Moscow, and so we did it. We must do this.

Others generally acknowledge that Moscow expect this from us. They do not hide that they [in Moscow] expect this from us.

“For Abkhazia, some foreign experience is useful, but not all. This should be communicated to both the West and Russia”

Liana Kvarchelia: And these same people blame NGOs, saying: you want to copy everything from the West. This is not true. There are useful things for our country there: fighting corruption, more rational organization of local self-government, careful attitude to cultural heritage, waste recycling, and much more that we could learn from.

At the same time, there are things that do not fit our mentality. In this, we agree with our critics. I think that on the issue of “foreign agents” we should say the same: We are ready to sign a harmonization plan [of legislation with Russian] on such and such points. But this particular issue, concerning the internal relations between society and the state, does not suit our mentality.

I think it’s okay to say that. Because this is not just a question of our mentality, it concerns our political system. You cannot change the political system of Abkhazia at the request from outside.

“This establishment of a repressive power vertical will affect everyone”

Liana Kvarchelia: What means this revision of the second chapter of the Constitution? It means the establishment of a repressive power vertical. I am sure there are no naive people here who do not understand that the authorities will initially apply this law to one category of citizens, then to another.

And it will apply not only to organizations but also to individuals, because it’s already stipulated in the project.

Is there anyone in our society who can hope that this law will not affect them? No.

I believe that behind the lobbying of this law there are several motives. It’s not just about harmonizing legislation, and it’s not just about diverting attention. There is a third reason, perhaps the main one.

This is an attempt to revise our Constitution and fundamentally reconsider our political system.

If a law is passed that infringes on the rights and freedoms of citizens, it will mean the dismantling of the political system in Abkhazia.

“Legally adopting the foreign agents law will undermine the state’s foundations”

Inal Hashig: Building on Liana’s final statement, Said, I’d like to ask you. Last week, several members of the Constitutional Commission signed a letter addressed to the president, ostensibly urging not to adopt the law on so-called “foreign agents.” What arguments do they present?

Setting aside the mental peculiarities of the Abkhazian people, which are well understood, from a legal standpoint, how does this law fit into existing legislation, and how does it align with the Constitution?

Said Gezerdava: I completely agree with Liana. I wanted to start by saying that such laws and a whole series of initiatives that have recently emerged from the current authorities undermine the foundations of our state.

In political science, there is a concept called “subversive institutions.” These subversive institutions are currently being used to damage our state structure, our constitutional framework.

The political regime itself is changing. We are transitioning from democracy to autocracy.

And when we confront the apologists for these initiatives face to face, they pretend as if this problem doesn’t even exist.

“Society is deprived of fundamental rights”

Said Gezerdava: This initiative itself, this law on foreign agents, is simply a monstrous accumulation of all the negativity that legislators can concoct.

Well, listen, we can’t just strip citizens of a whole range of fundamental political rights just because they work in non-governmental organizations.

They are depriving you of freedom of speech. You won’t be able to write anymore. For example, if I am deemed a foreign agent, I won’t be able to write a conclusion about these absurd initiatives.

It’s a complete ban on anyone being able to express themselves, to post status updates [on social media] about some insane initiatives. Isn’t this direct persecution?

There are critics in the country, and I’ll say it straight, some of them are absolutely shameless people who talk about “self-appointed individuals who speak somewhere.” Why did the word ‘self-appointed’ even come into someone’s mind?

And that’s how they treat civil society.

To me, it’s obvious that this is a tightening of screws. Yes, it’s strengthening of an authoritarian regime.

But it’s also a policy of fear. I don’t think it will all stop with just this foreign agent law. There’s much more that could be adopted [from Russia]. It is [punishments] for reposts, for likes, and so on.

The list is very long. It’s not just about freedom of speech. We’re being deprived of absolutely basic rights, even economic ones. We’re heading towards an actual defeat in rights. It’s unthinkable. This is something that didn’t even exist during Stalinism.

“Bzhania and other officials themselves were affiliated with NGOs and international organizations”

Inal Khashig: We’ve been through all this before. It’s history they’re trying to impose on us again. We’re talking about what Stalin and Beria did to our people in 1937. But now it’s our rulers trying to play the role of Stalin and Beria.

What bothers me is that listening to them, I can’t help but think, that if I didn’t know them, I might believe they’re sincere. That they believe in what they’re doing. But I know the recent past.

Aslan Bzhania was an opposition figure, running for president. I remember he used to come to the Center for Humanitarian Programs periodically. Arda Inal-ipa, a highly respected person in Abkhaz society, an expert, co-director of the Center for Humanitarian Programs. Eventually, they persuaded her to become the trusted representative of presidential candidate Aslan Bzhania.

So when she joined the initiative group to nominate Aslan Bzhania for president, she was a patriot. But now Aslan Bzhania is the patriot, and he needs something else for his opportunistic actions. And now Arda Inal-ipa has become for him a dubious element, a suspicious person, naturally, not a patriot.

I am concerned about these opportunistic moments. And what about the head of the presidential administration, who had plenty of dealings with international organizations? And now it turns out that all of this is harmful.

“The authorities’ attempt to ban pluralism of opinions and the constitution, which was voted for in the referendum”

Liana Kvarchelia: Let me illustrate with another example that this concerns not only NGOs. If it were just about us, it would be a different matter. But it affects everyone. A striking instance is the president’s address to the prosecutor general’s office. During his speech, the president urged them to pay attention to an economist, presumably referring to Akhra Avidzba, who suggests introducing our local currency, the apsar, into circulation.

So, it’s not about foreign influence or funding sources because Akhra Avidzba is not affiliated with any NGO. The issue is his differing opinion.

Even if he expresses some absurd views, counter them with your arguments. One of the principles of our constitution is pluralism of opinions. So, do you want to prohibit pluralism of opinions in the country?

But it’s the Constitution. It was adopted by the parliament after the war in the 1990s, the one we call the ‘Golden’ Parliament.’ And some of today’s deputies also fall into the category of former ‘golden deputies.’ But today they are saying things that are anti-constitutional.

And it’s not just the Constitution that was adopted back then by our Supreme Council under Vladislav Ardzinba, it’s the Constitution that we also voted for in a referendum. And today you want to abolish what the whole nation voted for.

“Are the authorities aware of the immense assistance provided by the West to Abkhazia in the fight against COVID?”

Liana Kvarchelia: When any assistance provided by international organizations is outright denied, it always raises the question: are you really aware of everything?

Let’s say you suspect they’re up to something. But let’s discuss what they’re openly doing.

Firstly, it wasn’t just 60 million allocated for fighting COVID-19. That 60 million was merely the initial response, the first tranche provided to Abkhazia. It was an immediate reaction to COVID-19, to such a complex situation in Abkhazia. In fact, much more, twice as much, was allocated. I specifically asked those working in international organizations about this.

Secondly, how can one not appreciate the presence of international specialists who helped with treatment protocols for the sick, simply compiling modern protocols?

If it weren’t for these modern protocols, if they weren’t updated each time, twice or three times more people would have died. That’s invaluable.

Invaluable is also how support was provided to the Sukhum COVID outpatient clinic through a local non-governmental organization, thanks to a young woman named Lia Agrba. They saved people who didn’t make it to the hospital and were suffering from the disease. Among them were my mother and my closest relatives.

This outpatient clinic and mobile brigade, they worked. And all their expensive medications, all consumables, the salaries of medical personnel, doctors, all of this was funded by international organizations.

Well, at least thank them for that.

“International organizations have assisted in building stadiums, racecourses, cafeterias, etc”

Liana Kvarchelia: President once said: “I don’t see what they’ve built here.” Well, if those who are duty-bound to inform you fail to do so, you won’t be informed.

Ciza Gumba alone built a small stadium in one of the villages of Gudauta district. They also renovated a small hippodrome with stables, repaired canteens, even the toilets that you haven’t attended to, they renovated too.

So, inquire before making such sweeping statements.

“International organizations do not formulate goals; NGOs do that themselves”

Liana Kvarchelia: The foreign minister often says that the goals of international organizations are very vague, and this creates a danger. But that’s a good thing, it means they don’t set our goals. Local organizations participate in competitions and receive funding. And should these international organizations formulate the goals for them?

Their goals are indeed broad because they only outline areas, topics. For example, improving education, environmental protection, supporting human rights activities, or something else. They formulate the speres very broadly, and that’s very good. Because local organizations write the projects, and local organizations themselves formulate their goals.

When we hold events, officials don’t attend, they’re not interested. So they don’t know anything at all. But they should just ask us about the goals we formulate.

“NGOs actually criticize the West for not recognizing Abkhazia”

Liana Kvarchelia: The authorities accuse NGOs of allegedly indiscriminately supporting the West. They claim we endorse everything said or done by international organizations, absolutely everything.

Well, actually, it’s not like that at all. If you look at our articles and speeches, you’ll see that we criticize the West specifically for its stance, for not recognizing Abkhazia. Sometimes we hear such loud statements from the ministers, especially the young ones: ‘We won’t let anyone raise the flag of Georgia.’ But who would allow it?

All of us together, our people, including us, the citizens of Abkhazia working in non-governmental organizations, didn’t allow it.

You say that we openly support the West. But that’s not true. How many articles, how many speeches have there been, at a fairly high level, where we spoke out against the non-recognition of Abkhazia? Spoke out against the isolation imposed on Abkhazia, against the imposition of so-called neutral passports with Georgian codes, and so on.

Dear, it wasn’t you who spoke out against this, it was us. We consistently address this issue. And we won’t allow anyone to come and say that everything we do will be nullified.

We have nothing to hide; our goals are transparent, our finances are transparent. It deeply concerns me that one member of the public council, who supports the authorities, said, ‘They need to be checked. Maybe they have cryptocurrency, maybe they have cash’.”

What are you accusing us of? Such thoughts never even crossed my mind. What unfounded accusations are these? Now they’re making me think that perhaps they themselves use such methods to conceal their illegal income from the tax authorities.

“Not only NGOs—everyone can become a victim of the foreign agents law”

Inal Khashig: Said, Liana mentioned that it’s generally understood that this foreign agents law isn’t exclusively aimed at people working in non-governmental organizations or international organizations. People have this notion that the foreign agents law only pertains to this group of individuals.

I would like you to thoroughly explain, using some basic examples, who, besides this group, could become a foreign agent, even without realizing they fall under this law.

Said Gezerdava: Absolutely false theses are being used to push through the law. Liana mentioned that we are accused of illegally receiving money. This is one of their theses. They claim there is no transparency in our work. And as if this law should regulate this sphere.

But in fact, this is not the case, because we have several laws that regulate this sphere. There is the Civil Code, the law on non-profit organizations, the law on public associations/political parties/movements. There is a law on state registration, presidential decrees, which were recently amended.

Regardless of whether we are involved in non-profit organizations, we all can suddenly become foreign agents.

In fact, individuals can become foreign agents much more easily. For example, they write something, express outrage on Facebook about something they don’t like, such as the electricity being cut off. Or if they don’t like the water being shut off, or something else. They dare to criticize local republican authorities.

Anyone can receive a transfer, and that’s enough [to become a foreign agent]. A money transfer from abroad, for example, from Armenia.

When you take the law itself and start reading it, it turns out that it doesn’t even aim to determine whether there is influence or not. The main factors there are two: whether you’ve received money, or are engaged in politics.

And politics is just a rubber term, it turns out. In Abkhazia, everything is politics. Well, we can say at the layman’s level, yes, it’s all politics. But where did public activity go? What is public activity? Where did it disappear?

It’s a copy, a replica of some unsuccessful law that has no right to be implemented in Abkhazia. The law is built on assumptions. That is, all the fears, all the prejudices that certain people have towards those who can freely express their opinion, are embodied in it.

They want to isolate us, separate us from the international community. We are the only channel of communication with the international community today. And it seems to me that the main goal is simply to shut down this channel.

I think that if, God forbid, this law is adopted, then the next step will definitely be some restrictions on international organizations.

This is the next stage, and we should not think that these repressions will end there.

“To keep international organizations, just to receive their money”

Liana Kvarchelia: Perhaps they don’t quite have such a plan. I’ve long observed some of our officials’ attitude towards international practices, experience, and resources. It reminds me of something like: ‘Don’t teach us how to live. Instead, help us financially.’

For financial gain, they might allow international organizations to stay. Because if they are such a menace, why didn’t you ask them to leave? If the accreditation of international organizations has expired, then the authorities can ask them to leave.

Well, go ahead, drive them out. You don’t care about what we, non-governmental organizations, say anyway, do you?

But the authorities aren’t doing that. Perhaps they don’t want to expose certain areas, like social and humanitarian issues. Because assistance is still coming through. The programs for AIDS, for hepatitis, for example, are fully supported by international organizations. They’re not ready to expose all of that now.

And maybe, I still hope, among the lobbyists for this law are former diplomats who understand: we’re still some kind of window through which we can convey ideas directly to the international community and advocate for Abkhazia’s rights.

The fact that international organizations remain in Abkhazia is further evidence that the main goal is ultimately to suppress dissenting opinions in Abkhazia. This is to prevent those critical of the government from having such an opportunity.

Said Gezerdava: I believe that it will be difficult for international organizations to operate independently, as much of their activities are conducted in partnership with local organizations. If somehow we are shut down by this law, their activities will be significantly hindered.

Perhaps they will be limited to occasional humanitarian actions. But I think that representatives of international organizations themselves are asking questions: why help and for what purpose? Because they see the shift towards authoritarianism, if not outright totalitarianism, emerging here.

“The resources of international organizations go towards covering their own expenses and directly benefiting recipients in Abkhazia”

Liana Kvarchelia: Officials have cited a figure: supposedly, international organizations have allocated 2 billion euros to local NGOs over several years. But they fail to mention an important point: these funds go not only to local organizations but also to beneficiaries. And a very large portion goes to the offices of international organizations themselves, where many people work.

When they directly implement projects, such as in agriculture, it all needs funding: rent for premises, fuel, salaries, and so on. And also, not small amounts are required to maintain the offices of international organizations.

Those directly responsible for supervising this sphere never do their job properly. But they need to delve into this.

“A new law is needed to regulate a new sphere of activity. But NGOs are not a new sphere in Abkhazia”

Liana Kvarchelia: A new law should be developed in case a new sphere has emerged that is not regulated in any way. When the first non-profit organizations emerged in Abkhazia, there was no law at that time. It was accepted only later. And this was reasonable.

Laws may be needed when a practice emerges that poses a threat to national interests. And existing laws do not help to stop this practice.

But nothing like this is happening now. And neither of the officials in Abkhazia has provided any evidence it might be needed.

I don’t want to be responsible for all NGOs. I know the ones we work with, and I’m talking about them now. I admit that someone may not be financially clean, I can’t vouch for everyone. Because there are organizations we don’t even know. But name them, if there are any, if there are any that violate something.

And, actually, officials, ministers, presidents, deputies, any person may happen to violate something. Are the authorities going to pass a new restrictive law for every ministry and every case from now? Are they going to restrict the rights of every guilty one? This is just absurd.

What I want to convey with all of this is that the authorities are primarily discussing how they can effectively control us. But if they believe that the current law concerning non-profit organizations doesn’t adequately prioritize accountability, transparency, and other such principles, then let’s simply enhance it.

“This is actually the beginning of repression”

Said Gezerdava: Yes, there’s an argument that the control is weak. The ministry of justice is responsible for monitoring the activities of NGOs. It has stated that it needs to oversee the activities of non-profit organizations and to ensure that they adhere to the goals and objectives outlined in their statutes.

As charitable organizations, we already regularly send our reports to the ministry. And no one prevents them from conducting inspections at any time. Well, this legislation is somewhat outdated, it needs to be updated. If they are genuinely interested in improving transparency and control, we can offer our support.

Let’s work on better financial accountability, financial transparency. Let’s examine and enhance this control.

But they never even tried to do it. The idea of better control is included in this law, but attached to it is a restriction on political rights.

Tell me, please, what does restricting political rights have to do with improving control? They just want to cover up your real aims, probably. I believe that’s the main goal.

They just want to use these speeches to cover up political repression. I understand that they don’t like hearing [such interpretations]. Although I think soon they themselves will start talking openly about repression, judging by how their rhetoric is spinning. They will soon start speaking in plain language and conducting Soviet-style party meetings. Or they will speak the language of Stalin’s “troikas.”

These are repressions, actually. There’s simply no other word for what they’re proposing at all.

“The authorities scare with a colored revolution, but in fact, they are the ones changing the state structure without any revolution”

Inal Khashig: The propaganda campaign promoting the foreign agents law talks a lot about Western influence, colored revolutions, and so on. About how they [in the West] allegedly want to change the ideology on which the Abkhazian state is based.

But it seems to me that it’s the officials who are changing this ideology. And in such a way that colored revolutions are not even necessary.

I myself cannot say that those who would likely be among the first to fall under the foreign agents law have participated in colored revolutions in any way.

Liana Kvarchelia: One of the most popular propaganda clichés is the suggestion that some guidelines for non-governmental organizations on how to behave exist. They say, that in Ukraine, Belarus, and so on, people were encouraged to make revolutions. Allegedly, everything was done there according to some guidelines.

But in small Abkhazia, with its population not in the millions, we definitely know who orchestrates coups here.

Just pay attention to who they are. These are people who came into power through the windows. Maybe they didn’t climb through the windows themselves, but others opened the windows, let them in, and put them in charge. And then there were elections.

Among those in power, there are also those who have been involved in such matters multiple times. We know who’s who in all political groups, who participated in what. We all know perfectly well. And I would like our viewers not to be misled. People should not believe this propaganda, which is very easy to refute.

“The authorities are trying to break the very backbone of ‘Abkhazness’ so that there is no one left to defend Abkhazia’s sovereignty”

Inal Khashig: One more aspect concerns me. I believe it is not only an attempt to suppress freedom of speech, not only an attempt to take punitive measures against certain individuals. It’s an attempt to break the very backbone of “Abkhazness,” the foundation of our national liberation movement. They’re trying to snap that spine.

At the meeting of the Public Chamber, I heard one participant say: “What kind of intellectuals are they, who are they, who are speaking out? Name those who are against this law.”

And I remembered the situation in 1978. I was just a kid, but I remember vividly how dramatic the times were. People were expelled from the party, subjected to political obstruction in the media, at enterprises, in regional committees, and so on. They were branded as villains, nationalists, destroyers of the Soviet system.

130 people then signed a letter of protest against it. And then society supported them, stood up, and spoke out. And it effectively broke the power line. If society hadn’t stood up, perhaps there wouldn’t be this Abkhaz state.

If there hadn’t been this backbone of “Abkhazness” in society, there would have been no resistance, and then no Abkhaz state. And now the authorities, it seems to me, want to break the backbone of all the activities of the Abkhaz national liberation movement with this law.

Now, we have the movement that adheres to real sovereignty, seeks to address the problems of Abkhazia and the Abkhaz state. After this law, perhaps no one will be able to speak. Perhaps that’s what they’re aiming for.

I believe that those 130 people who signed that letter in 1978 would be the first today to be labeled with this tag if the foreign agents law were passed. I would like the parliamentarians who will consider this law

not to forget about this. It would be good for them to delve into the archives before approaching this issue.

Yes, it happened in 1977-1978. But it’s worth talking to people who were involved in those processes and understanding the drama of the situation back then. And perhaps then they will be able to appreciate the harmfulness of this law that our leadership is imposing on us.

Their motivation is not entirely clear to me, although I have some ideas in this regard. This law that they are trying to impose on us is alien to our society, to our mentality, and it affects each and every one of us.

Today we mainly talked about the non-governmental sector. But in reality, the situation affects each of us It affects our future.

We used to be considered a free society. But now they are trying to warn us about the danger of taking steps left and right. They try to suggest that if you claim to be a free person, you’ll end up labeled. Essentially, we’ll be deprived of the freedom to think.

Our state has faced difficulties throughout its 30-year existence. It’s clear that a state will never endure if it doesn’t have super-natural resources. But a state will never become such if its people are not free. I thank our guests, Liana Kvarchelia and Said Gezerdava, for discussing this law, which is extremely harmful to the Abkhaz state and our future.

The draft law on foreign agents that the authorities are trying to impose on us today I hope it won’t pass.

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