“No similarity with Russian law,” assures MP Nikoloz Samkharadze

No similarity with Russian law assures MP Nikoloz Samkharadze

Situation still very tense in Georgia after the adoption at the beginning of the week of a law supposed to fight against foreign influences. Every evening, thousands of demonstrators, mostly young people, accuse the government of wanting to control NGOs and independent media ahead of the legislative elections next fall. For its part, the government and Georgian Dream, the party in power since 2012, assure that it is simply a question of bringing transparency to the financing of NGOs. Interview with Nikoloz Samkharadze, MP of the ruling party and chairman of the Committee on International Relations in the Georgian Parliament.

RFI: Thousands of Georgians demand every evening the withdrawal of this law which they describe as “Russian law”. Are you going to give in and renounce this text?

Nikoloz Samkharadze: There are a lot of people who don’t want this law, but there are even more who want it! People who don’t want it say it’s a Russian law… Well, they have to prove it. How is this law Russian? We say that it has nothing to do with the Russian law, because the text took into account the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice. Therefore, we believe that the law does not contradict any European standards. But to be sure, we will now wait for the legal opinion of the Council of Europe and the OSCE. And if they have any legal objections, then we will be happy to take them into account, and amend the law accordingly. This is therefore our position.

But many European Union leaders have said that this law will be a big problem for Georgia’s European integration…

In reality, the law has nothing to do with foreign policy, it is a purely national issue. This is why we believe that the law cannot be an obstacle if it does not contradict European standards and values. And once again, let’s wait for what the Council of Europe and the OSCE will say. If the law ultimately does not contradict any EU norms or values, how can it constitute a barrier or obstacle to our European integration? So far, all the statements that have been made have been political statements. None of them were legal in nature. This is why we want to engage everyone in a legal discussion about this law.

Protesters say it’s a Russian law because it resembles Russia’s 2012 law on foreign agents. For you this has nothing to do?

This has nothing to do with ! You could also argue that the Georgian language is similar to the Russian language, but there is no similarity. And it’s the same with this law: there is no similarity with Russian law. Russian law is a draconian law, which prohibits individuals from participating in elections, which prohibits individuals from teaching in universities and schools, which applies criminal liability. You can be arrested in Russia for doing this. However, in Georgian law, none of this exists. It does not impose criminal liability. What it requires is an annual declaration of NGO income and expenditure.

Read alsoGeorgia: after the vote on the law on “foreign agents”, what can opponents hope for?

But that was the case with Russian law in 2012 and then it was tightened. So the people who demonstrate are afraid of the same thing…

We have a Penal Code, don’t we? And if one day someone decides to add the death penalty to the Penal Code, that is no reason not to have a Penal Code today. I mean that if later, in seven years or in fifteen years, someone decides to make this law a very strict law, then, of course, everyone will be right to say that it becomes a Russian law. But today, as things stand, this is not Russian law. And we have no intention of making it stricter.

Why is such a law necessary and why now?

In Georgia, there are more than 25,000 registered NGOs for a population of 3.7 million people. That’s one NGO for every 150 Georgian citizens! In addition, it has a gap in the legislation, because all public entities, all businesses, all political parties must declare their income and expenses. The only area where this obligation is not regulated is the “non-profit” sector.

Second, it is absolutely prohibited in Georgia and most countries around the world to finance political parties from abroad. And what we have seen in Georgia is that fake NGOs have been created which then receive funds from abroad and use them for political purposes. This means that they violate the law on the financing of political parties through NGOs.

There are other problems too, because in Georgia, unlike Europe or the West in general, more than 95% of overall NGO funding comes from abroad. This poses a serious security problem in a country which is partially occupied and where we do not know where these funds come from. Funds that come from France may be okay, but there may be funds that come from Russia or other non-European players. We and society need to know where these funds come from and what they are used for. That’s all.

And the demonstrations? They continue to develop. There are always people on the street. Do you hope this will go away?

There are different segments of people protesting. The largest segment is opposition activists. And they are trying to use this law to mobilize against the government, which is normal. The second segment concerns people who work for NGOs and who don’t want to be accountable, because it’s a headache. The third segment is all those who fear that this law will block Georgia’s European integration due to political declarations coming from abroad. And I am sure that once the legal opinion of the Council of Europe and the OSCE is known, these fears will dissipate.

Also listenGeorgia: in Gori, the difficult mobilization against the law on foreign influences

What about the police situation? There were accusations of violence, harassment. President Salome Zourabishvili said “Russian methods” were now being used in Georgia…

There have been several incidents where police officers clearly used excessive force. In all these cases, an investigation has been opened and I am sure that, in all these cases, the police officers who used excessive force will be held accountable for their actions. We must also not forget that there is also the other side of the coin, and that demonstrators have been violent. Several proceedings were opened against the violent demonstrators who attacked the police. No matter where the violence comes from, whenever there is a violation of the law, each party should be responsible. And we think that will be the case.

Read alsoGeorgia: President vetoes secretly amended “foreign influence” law

Aren’t you afraid that all these young people demonstrating will vote against the Georgian Dream next October?

We are very confident that the Georgian Dream will win the elections. More than half the population supports us – around 55%. Of course, young people who are members of other political parties or NGOs will not vote for us. But that’s democracy. You know, we don’t want everyone to vote for Georgian Dream.

Protesters say the Georgian Dream will use this law to ensure they win the election…

This is also an argument that makes no sense because the law is about financial transparency. How can we use this to win elections? Because to win elections, you have to talk to people. We need to talk to voters. We must win the hearts of voters. And you must show that you are a better party and a better government for this country than others. And I think we’ve shown that very well to our citizens over the last three or four years.

They say that the law will create problems for independent media, for NGOs that track fraud and that they will no longer be able to work…

No, that’s not true either. There is no clause in the law that would shut down NGOs and independent media. The problem with this is that most of the people protesting in front of Parliament have not read the law and do not know what it is. And what made really sincere people take to the streets was to call this law “Russian law”. Because anything called Russian in Georgia is unacceptable to Georgians. I mean 85% of Georgians support European integration, which covers the entire Georgian population, urban, rural, young, old… everyone. It is therefore not correct to consider this matter as a foreign policy choice.

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