June 24. 2024. 5:03

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Ball in Georgian Dream’s court as Venice Commission asks to withdraw ‘foreign agent’ law

Georgia must repeal the ‘foreign influence’ law as it could be used to silence critical voices, according to The Council of Europe’s top constitutional law body, the Venice Commission, on Tuesday (21 May).

Georgian lawmakers passed the controversial Kremlin-style law last week, which would brand hundreds of civil society organisations and media outlets as foreign agents.

Critics fear the Georgian Dream-led government would use it to crack down on government opponents, especially before the country’s parliamentary elections in October.

The Georgian president has meanwhile vetoed the bill, but the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party has enough lawmakers in parliament to override her veto in the final vote expected next week.

Brussels has called on the Georgian government to withdraw the law, stating it is not compatible with Georgia’s bid for EU membership.

The ruling Georgian Dream party insists it is committed to joining the EU and portrays the introduced law as aimed at increasing the transparency of civil society funding.

‘Fundamental flaws’

In its urgent opinion, the Venice Commission—the Council of Europe’s legal advisory body—said the bill shows “fundamental flaws” that risk obstructing “freedoms of association and expression, the right to privacy, the right to participate in public affairs as well as the prohibition of discrimination.”

Citing the widespread protests against the move by the governing Georgian Dream party, the body said the government’s adoption of the law “left no space for genuine discussion and meaningful consultation, in open disregard for the concerns of large parts of the Georgian people”.

“This manner of proceeding does not meet the European requirements of democratic law-making,” it added, calling on the government of the country not to pass the draft bill in its current form.

According to the Venice Commission’s report, the framing of the law is too “broad and vague,” and the financial reporting requirements are both impractical and likely to be used to “impose lengthy, harassing and costly audits.”

The law, in its current form, states that organisations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad will be required to register as “organisations serving the interests of a foreign power.”

Even if not true, the label ‘pursuing the interests of a foreign power’ would be used for stigmatisation, the Venice Commission added.

The legal advisory body also said the proposals “present numerous similarities” with laws adopted by Russia, Hungary and Kyrgyzstan, where they have been used to crack down on civil dissent against the respective governments.

It “regrets that the Georgian parliament did not wait for its opinion before adopting the law, despite the calls by the president of the Parliamentary Assembly and by the secretary-general of the Council of Europe.”

As a member of the Council of Europe, Georgia is bound by its European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rulings.

What happens next?

Georgian Parliament Speaker Shalva Papuashvili (GD) said lawmakers are expected to override the president’s veto next week.

The ruling Georgian Dream party on Tuesday quickly rejected the Venice Commission’s urgent opinion.

Georgian Dream MP Salome Kurasbediani told reporters in an official party briefing that it showed “there are no legal or other arguments against Georgia’s law on transparency.”

She accused the body of making “biased political assessments instead of a professional discussion.”

Nikoloz Samkharadze, Georgian Dream’s chair of the parliament’s foreign relations committee, told Euractiv ahead of the legal report’s publication his government would “welcome any legal opinion coming from our European partners”.

“We will wait for the legal opinion [of the Venice Commission], and we will see whether there is anything in the legal opinion that says that it contradicts European norms,” Samkharadze said over the weekend.

“If there is anything in the legal opinion that clearly says that it contradicts European norms, we are ready to change or amend the legislation,” he added.

It remains unclear whether the government will now make adjustments to the bill or attempt to pass it in its current form.

“The reaction from the Georgian Dream Party is very worrisome because it declared that the Venice Commission is unobjective, untrustworthy, influenced by NGOs, and ‘steered by somebody’ who forced the Venice Commission to make a statement supportive of civil society,” George Melashvili, director of the Europe-Georgia Institute, told Euractiv.

“It’s also worrisome that even though the government and the ruling Georgian Dream Party could comment in writing on the opinion, they decided to publicly accuse the Venice Commission of not being objective,” he added.

Read more with Euractiv

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