Foreign Agent Law Could Impact Services for the Vulnerable

Georgia’s parliament passed a “foreign agent” law on 15 May that will require any organizations, activist groups and media outlets receiving more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register with Georgia’s government as “agents of foreign influence.” Anahit Mkhoyan, director of Caritas Georgia, a CNEWA partner, released a statement outlining her concerns regarding what this law could mean for Georgia’s most vulnerable.

The leader of a Catholic nonprofit in the nation of Georgia is speaking out after that country’s parliament passed controversial legislation on foreign agents — a measure she said “risks jeopardizing the provision of services to the beneficiaries who need them the most.”

Anahit Mkhoyan, director of Caritas Georgia, issued a detailed statement shortly after Georgian lawmakers approved a bill on “Transparency of Foreign Influence,” 14 May, despite massive demonstrations that saw tens of thousands gather in Tbilisi to oppose the legislation.

The bill, shelved last year after it had sparked violent protests, was recently dusted off and reintroduced by the leading Georgia Dream party — whose de facto leader, former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, is seeking a Moscow-facing path for the nation, which gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

The text of the bill specifies that organizations, activist groups and media outlets receiving more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad must register with Georgia’s government as “agents of foreign influence.” Brawls broke out in parliament during the two reading sessions for the legislation, which stands to endanger Georgia’s bid for European Union membership.

Georgia’s President Salome Zourabichvili has vowed to veto the bill, but the Georgian Dream majority can overturn that decision, creating what Mkhoyan called “several difficulties” for Caritas Georgia and other charitable organizations providing social services to vulnerable populations.

As part of Caritas Internationalis, the universal Catholic Church’s global federation of more than 160 humanitarian organizations, Caritas Georgia “has never exerted foreign influence in Georgia,” said Mkhoyan. “It has always used the knowledge, good practices and resources of good-willed foreign people to assist the most vulnerable people in Georgia.”

Founded in 1994, the agency has over the past 30 years assisted “thousands of beneficiaries,” among them “children without parental care and the ones who are street-connected, the poor and homeless, lonely elderly individuals, people with disabilities, home care patients, victims of domestic violence, and voluntarily returned migrants,” Mkhoyan said.

“We provide safe shelter and basic necessities [nutrition, healthcare, household needs] and promote education and employment,” she said in her 16 May statement. “In addition to directly assisting vulnerable individuals, we have been promoting, developing, and strengthening rural communities for years. Furthermore, we promptly respond to disasters caused by natural and human conflicts.”

In a previous interview with OSV News, Mkhoyan said that Caritas Georgia was that nation’s largest social services provider — and she reiterated in her statement that work could only be accomplished with funding primarily from “organizations in the E.U. and the United States.”

In her statement, Mkhoyan specified a number of ways in which the foreign agent legislation will restrict the work of charitable organizations.

The bill imposes an “increased administrative burden” of compliance that “could divert resources and attention away from providing essential services,” while “navigating varying legal and regulatory frameworks could pose challenges,” she said.

In addition, the legislation “may contribute to the stigmatization” of Caritas Georgia and similar entities, and “undermine the credibility and effectiveness” of agencies working to “better the [quality of life] of Georgian people,” said Mkhoyan.

Donors themselves may become “hesitant” to continue their support, which in turn “could limit opportunities for collaboration and resource mobilization,” leading to a downturn in both funds and in “international engagement and collaboration in addressing social issues,” she said.

The law stands to raise privacy concerns for clients receiving services from Caritas Georgia and fellow agencies, “particularly if detailed information about beneficiaries and their needs is subject to disclosure requirements,” Mhkoyan cautioned.

She warned that an absence of judicial review “leaves room for regulatory authorities or government agencies responsible for enforcing the bill’s provisions to exercise their powers unchecked.

“This could create opportunities for abuse of power, including harassment, intimidation, or discriminatory treatment of charitable organizations based on factors such as their funding sources or perceived political affiliations,” she said.

In addition, “there is a heightened risk that regulatory actions taken against charitable organizations, such as investigations, penalties, or sanctions, may be based on insufficient evidence or conducted in violation of legal rights and procedural safeguards,” Mkhoyan said. “This could result in unjust outcomes and damage the reputation and credibility of affected organizations.”

Mhkoyan said in her statement that while “transparency and accountability are important principles for charitable organizations,” implementation of the bill should be “carefully balanced to avoid unintended consequences” that would ultimately harm vulnerable populations.

Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News.

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