Caritas Georgia Workers Remain Wary After ‘Foreign Agent’ Legislation Withdrawn

Staff at a Catholic relief agency in the nation of Georgia remain wary after a controversial proposed law was withdrawn 9 March, following two nights of violent protests in the capital of Tbilisi that saw dozens injured and detained by police.

The legislation, backed by that country’s ruling Georgian Dream party, would have required non-commercial legal entities, including news outlets, receiving more than 20% of their income from abroad to register as foreign agents. As such, the organizations would be subject to extra scrutiny and hefty fines for noncompliance.

The move to introduce the law — which has been likened to similar legislation passed by neighboring Russia to suppress dissent — sparked widespread concern in both Georgia and in the international community, and triggered clashes within both parliament and on the street.

While Georgia President Salome Zourabichvili had openly opposed the legislation and supported protests, today’s announcement about the bill’s withdrawal did little to allay the concerns of Anahit Mkhoyan, executive director of Caritas Georgia, part of Caritas Internationalis, a global confederation of 162 Catholic humanitarian aid organizations.

“People are suspicious that there is an agenda behind it, because it is not that easy to call back the law after the first reading,” Mkhoyan told OSV News. “We are suspicious too, because there (are) obviously some procedural errors there. If, during the second listening (session), the law is not turned down, then it still can go forward, because they say legally they cannot call the law back after the first listening. They have to turn it down on the second listening only if they want to stop the process.”

The law itself would prove particularly problematic for Caritas Georgia, she said.

Although part of the Caritas worldwide network, Caritas Georgia, like other federation members, is “a local organization, doing work locally,” said Mkhoyan. “We are not serving another country. Generally, foreign agents are carrying out the interests of another country, but we are carrying out the interests of the Georgian people.”

Mkhoyan said Caritas Georgia, which has “around 350 staff and 100 volunteers,” receives “62% of its funds” from “7 to 8 countries,” with Germany being its largest donor, and no one of the international supporters contributing more than 20%.

“Of which country would we be considered a foreign agent?” Mkhoyan asked.

The group acts as “the biggest social protections provider organization in Georgia,” she said.

“We serve children (and) the elderly. We have a home care service for bedridden people,” said Mkhoyan. “We give food to people who are hungry and living on the streets. We have an integration project for people with disabilities. We work with migrants and Georgians migrating (back) from other countries. We have a massive area of activities.”

Mkhoyan said she expected that, if successfully reintroduced, the foreign agent law would not at first impair those services as much as it would “harm (Caritas Georgia’s) advocacy activities.”

“We would not be free to bring the voice of the people to the government,” she said. “We are working on improving social policies, and of course, sometimes what we say may not be what the government wants to hear, but it is the voice of the people that we are bringing (to them).”

Mkhoyan also cited the case of Caritas Algeria, which was forced by that nation’s government to definitively close in October 2022 due to the group’s status as a foreign agent.

“We have an example in front of us,” she said.

Mkhoyan said Caritas Georgia staff, who have been present at the protests, were not injured or detained. None of the group’s offices have been damaged by the clashes, which took place on Tbilisi’s central Rustaveli Avenue.

The Caritas Georgia team is “full of hope, but until reality changes we will not believe in anything, because politics proved to be not trustful,” she said. “We still hope (that) if anyway the law goes through, at least the president can veto it, and she announced that she will.”

Mkhoyan added she hoped the nation would “avoid violent cases” of protest, but cautioned it “depends how the police will behave.”

The nation’s youth “are in the streets,” she added. “And when Georgian youth stand up, they can really change stuff.”

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