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Georgia’s 'Foreign Interests' law draws scrutiny, including from a DW Akademie partner

Caucasus Open Space, a DW Akademie partner in Georgia, is investigating power dynamics ahead of the country’s Parliamentary elections, and in the aftermath of its controversial “Foreign Interests” law.

Georgien Tiflis Protest junger Menschen gegen Gesetz über „ausländische Agenten“

In Tbilisi in May, young people protesting the Georgian government’s plans to institute a ‘foreign agent’ law which would restrict media and NGOs that work in the country and receive foreign aid.

These days, both Teona Macharashvili and Irma Pavliashvili are in Tbilisi's streets among hundreds of protestors facing tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons. Their participation is mostly based on shared dissent over new legislation that would pressure NGOs and media outlets considered to be "carrying the interests of a foreign power" to regularly provide the Georgian government with financial statements about their activities.  

But the protests are also a research lab for the two women, as both have a keen interest in just how the legislation – which Georgia's president vetoed last month but which Georgia's Parliament subsequently pushed through – and other power dynamics will influence Georgia's Parliamentary elections in October. What could hinder free and fair elections in this country of 3.6 million? How could disinformation and hybrid warfare sway voters? And what does all of this have to do with Georgia's stated wish to join the European Union? 

"We are most concerned with the problem of getting ahold of reliable, in-depth analysis of Georgia's political and social issues and what elections should look like in a free society," said Macharashvili. "Disinformation is rampant in Georgia." 

Georgien Teona Macharashvili

Teona Macharashvili with the nonprofit Caucasus Open Space in Georgia works on matters related to fair elections and civil society, and has experience monitoring elections

Both also point out that Georgian laws already require financial reporting and that the new law carries an air of Soviet suspicion of "foreign agents." 

"It's a word with extremely heavy connotation in Georgia and essentially means 'traitor,' someone who has sold out their homeland," explained Macharashvili. 

Scaling up 

This area of study absorbs Pavliashvili, who is the chairperson of the civil society research nonprofit Caucasus Open Space, where Macharashvili is a board member. Their organization receives some funding from the European Union and has a commitment to maintaining independence. This funding, they say, supports pre-election analysis and their work with focus groups, as well as performing outreach to Georgia’s international diaspora on the topic of voting rights and legal procedures. Caucasus Open Space is also a DW Akademie partner in Georgia

"[The funding] helps us scale up the work we've already been doing," said Pavliashvili, "which is researching fact-based, evidence-based analytical – as opposed to opinions – research into free and fair elections, and producing from that politically neutral, practical information for both journalists and all voters."  

Georgien Irma Pavliashvili

Irma Pavliashvili directs the NGO Caucasus Open Space

Pavliashvili has been doing this work since 2003 and has participated in many election observations in Georgia and abroad. She authored part of a 2017 law that obligates Georgia’s government to recognize that men and women are equal. The law was revoked earlier this year.  

Disproportionate use of force 

Like many countries around the world today, Georgia's political society is polarized. Some lawmakers favor Georgia joining the European Union while others support stronger ties with Russia. Polling shows that nearly 90 percent of the population supports European Union membership

Georgia's essential challenge, said Macharashvili, stems in part from its nascent democratic structures. This tension prompted the protests in May which, according to the United Nations human rights chief, Volker Türk, led to "unnecessary and disproportionate use of force by law enforcement personnel." 

The protesters, which at times numbered 300,000, in Tbilisi, believe the new "foreign agent law" will suppress independent media and other organizations that would hold their government to account, including at the ballot box. Now that Georgia's Parliament has voted in favor of the law and overruled the president's veto, Georgia’s prospects for EU membership could be blocked. 

"The law will substantially limit the election observers from performing their work," said Macharashvili. 

A lot at stake 

This, said Pavliashvili, would be especially detrimental in rural areas which are largely dependent on government subsidies for jobs and economic survival. 

"These subsidies can be withheld," she said. "So, there is a lot at stake." 

High stakes, though, seem par for the course for both women

Macharashvili's first job was as an intern with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Georgia, and her work centered on human rights in rural areas directly affected by Russia's invasion in 2008. It left a lasting impression on her of how powerless people can feel. 

"And we see this with the protesters today," she added. "We believe our work aims simply at freedom, safety, equality and fairness. And that's what the protesters say they want, too." 

Caucasus Open Space is a DW Akademie partner in a project supported by the European Union and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).