Red alert: foreign agents bill in Abkhazia submitted to parliament

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Foreign agents bill in Abkhazia

Author: Marina Kobakhia

President of Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhania, has presented a bill to parliament titled “On non-profit organizations and individuals performing the functions of a foreign agent.” Essentially, this mirrors the contentious law on foreign agents that civil society in the republic has vehemently opposed for some time.

The bill’s explanatory note asserts that it aims to safeguard Abkhazia’s interests, sovereignty, and the rights of its citizens. Additionally, it seeks to counter foreign interference in the political activities of the Abkhaz state and society by ensuring swift responses.

According to the bill, NGOs and individuals can be designated as performing the functions of a foreign agent if they receive funds or other assets from foreign sources and engage in political activities within the Republic of Abkhazia, including on behalf of foreign entities.

Civil society swiftly responded to the president’s proposal.

The OKNO Telegram channel was created, and on the same day, it issued an appeal to the government. The appeal contends that the provisions of the law on foreign agents contradict the Constitution of Abkhazia:

We believe that it is unacceptable to introduce regulations that restrict the activities of civil society organizations and individuals in Abkhazia, regardless of the terminology used in the legislation. Such restrictions would directly violate the Constitution of the Republic of Abkhazia and its fundamental principles.”

Lawyer Said Gezerdaa wrote on his Facebook page that the bill on foreign agents includes a register not only for legal entities but also for individuals. This implies that it will encompass not just organizations but also specific individuals.

“Anyone can be listed in the register of individuals. You could be labeled a ‘foreign agent’ if you’re:

  • a businessperson opposing the monopolization of certain industries,
  • a journalist trying to convey the truth about Abkhazia in foreign publications,
  • or a repatriate working with the diaspora.

In other words, any citizen of Abkhazia, at the discretion of officials, could be included in this list of ‘unreliable ones,’” Gezerdaa cautioned.

By the evening of February 9, over 300 signatures from civil activists, journalists, NGO workers, and students had been collected.

One of the activists who signed the petition is convinced that the aim of the foreign agents bill is not to safeguard Abkhazia from foreign influence but to suppress dissent and criticism of the authorities.

This law will undermine the democratic culture in Abkhazia,” the activist stated.

Civil activists began collecting signatures for an appeal to the president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament in January 2022, when parliament received a list of forty-six laws for review as part of the harmonization of Abkhazia’s laws with those of Russia.

According to Natalie Smyr, a member of the Abkhaz parliament of the 6th convocation, she immediately informed her Russian colleagues about the bills they would not accept. One of them was the law on foreign agents.

I told them, ‘Our foreign agents are not your foreign agents.’ International organizations and local individuals who worked and continue to work with them saved people from hunger [during the blockade in the 1990s – JAMnews]. They have done a lot of good for us. We cannot simply discard them like this.”

This was our stance in the 6th parliament. The зresident knew that 18 deputies would not allow any law to pass that contradicted the spirit of our Constitution. So, I waited for the new convocation. And now, he resolves all issues through ‘his’ deputies,” says Natalie Smyr.

She also believes that the law on foreign agents is not aimed at combating Western influence but at suppressing the opposition:

Bzhania has taken on too many obligations to the Russian oligarchs, which, given the strong opposition and civil society, he will not be able to fulfill. That’s why we have all this happening today.”

Economist Akhra Aristava also argues that implementing a law on foreign agents in Abkhazia is simply unfeasible.

Due to objective, historical, cultural, and other reasons, not everything that is applicable in Russia can be applied in Abkhazia. Therefore, laws such as those regarding foreign agents will only bring harm to Abkhazia,” writes Akhra Aristava on Facebook.

The parliament has yet to address the bill. Considering all necessary procedures, it will reach the parliamentary session in two months.

Deputies will have the same amount of time to refine it between readings. There is speculation among parliament members that the law may ultimately not be passed.

However, civil society is more pessimistic. The alienation of the Pitsunda state dacha has set a precedent, leading many to anticipate further actions from the current session of deputies.

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