Levan Dolidze - Instead of focusing on the steps that should bring us further progress, we are creating new barriers on the path to the EU

Interpressnews spoke to Levan Dolidze, Georgia’s former Ambassador to NATO and the founder of Centre for Strategy and Development (CSD).

- Mr Levan, the parliamentary majority’s decision to reintroduce the “foreign agents” bill with a changed title – On Transparency of Foreign Influence – became the most intense and highly debated topic of our domestic and foreign policy. As far as I remember, you have the experience of working for civil society organisations. In your opinion, how convincing is the government’s declared position that this law aims to ensure the transparency of NGOs? How do you think, what other purpose the initiation of this law could serve?

- If the government’s actual objective was to ensure more transparency, this bill would not have been initiated in this form. The bill requires that all organisations that receive overseas funding were registered as serving the interests of a foreign power, which is, in fact, a synonym for a foreign agent. This requirement explicitly reveals that it is not transparency that the government seeks but the discreditation of these organisations.

Despite the fact that the government has full information on projects funded by the donors, it is also particularly noteworthy that the assistance and support provided by the partners and implemented by NGOs at the local level is in many cases requested by the government of Georgia or planned in accordance with the specific needs determined by the government itself.

The government is actively and repeatedly claiming that there are similar laws on foreign funding adopted in western countries, while trying to draw some relevant parallels.

Much could be said about the content of these laws; however, it is equally important to evaluate the context that underlay their adoption in the West.

None of the western countries have adopted these laws aiming to target the support coming from their strategic partners, and these laws have always been proposed in an attempt to neutralize threats from hostile states. I believe even the government of Georgia does not deny this obvious truth of this fact.

It is also noteworthy that a substantial majority – perhaps more than 90% – of states/organisations that provide funding for NGOs are Georgia’s strategic partners, namely, western countries and their institutions. Therefore, the bill largely targets s them.

Besides, for years the ruling party representatives have been actively voicing various allegations and claiming that certain western powers intend to overthrow Georgia’s government and drag the country into war; several actors opposing the government, including those from CSOs, are frequently called foreign agents. Notably, that in this case as well, the government has been explicitly alluding to the West.

At the same time, this issue has clearly become a key narrative disseminated by the government-controlled media outlets. All things considered, the adoption of the law that will, in fact, label most western-funded organisations as “foreign agents”, is naturally perceived as a direly retrograde step leading to the confrontation with the West.

Of course, the adoption of the law will significantly deteriorate the relationships with our strategic partners and create additional barriers on our path to integration within the western institutions. This step taken by the government may stem from a variety of factors, however, none of them seem to serve the national interests of Georgia in any conceivable way.

Probably, it would be without question, if the bill touched upon the 20% margin of funding from the very state that has 20% of our country occupied, or even upon establishing regulations to fully control this type of financial support.

We do, however, see that the discussion revolving around this law actually avoids the Russian factor and, as strange as it may seem, the entire emphasis falls on some imagined threats coming from the West. I believe, this is a bigger problem than the actual law or the specific damage it may cause to the country immediately upon its adoption.

- The EU, the Council of Europe, the USA, and even NATO’s Secretary General himself expressed their deep concern over this initiative introduced by the government amid the ruling party’s continued claims that a similar law is recommended by the EU, and adopted in many countries.

Greater level of clarity was expected following the visit of Premier Minister Irakli Kobakhidze to Germany, however, unfortunately, quite the opposite happened. We will definitely touch upon the government's reaction to Berlin's official position on the issue.

However, at this point we should mention that Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz stipulated the following: „the EU has no such law “... „this law should not be brought back...“, „we, the entire European Union, are very critical of the “foreign agents” bill... we hope that this law will not be adopted“. How would you assess Irakli Kobakhidze’s visit to Germany? Especially considering what the Chancellor of Germany told us about the draft law On Transparency of Foreign Influence?

- First of all, it is important to emphasize, that as one of the EU’s most influential states, Germany played a pivotal role in granting candidate status to Georgia.

It was in his very speech, when Chancellor Scholz stated that the voices of the European people „must be heard throughout Europe, from the Mediterranean to the North Sea, from Lisbon to Tbilisi and beyond“, and it has significantly contributed to the endorsement and reinforcement of the view that Georgia is a European country, and it is to become the member of the European Union.

You might well remember that several years ago European leaders did not make very favourable comments when it came to Georgia and Europe’s geography, and from time-to-time various European experts raised questions about our European identity.

Certainly, the overall picture was significantly altered by the Russia-Ukraine war. However, the statements like the one that Chancellor Scholz made have enormous influence on the alteration of the EU’s attitude towards such issues.

Sadly, instead of focusing and working on those aspects that would facilitate further progress and help us initiate the accession negotiations, we are now creating new barriers on this path ourselves.

When it comes to the aforementioned visit to Germany-generally-it is always important that the meetings of this level are less burdened with problematic issues, which always divert focus from more positive agenda.

As expected, during the public statement, the Chancellor spoke about all kinds of progress achieved in bilateral relationships and underlined Germany’s unflagging support for Georgia; and though he remained fairly balanced about several critical issues, the Chancellor was quite explicit in expressing his negative opinion of the bill in question.

I am confident that the draft law must have been one of the key issues discussed at the closed-door meeting.

- We were explicitly told in Berlin – if you want the EU membership, do not pass this law.

The explanations provided first by PM Irakli Kobakhidze, and then other members of the governing party proved rather ambiguous, to put it mildly. One would think that they either ignored or misunderstood what Chancellor Scholz had said. In a best-case scenario, it was assumed that the Office of the Chancellor failed to properly inform him about this issue.

Following the meeting with Chancellor Scholz, PM Irakli Kobakhidze declared that he is „personally ready to get involved in the discussions related to the law on transparency with anyone - diplomats, politicians, representatives of NGOs. “It would have been better if the government had actually held discussion and consultation with our foreign partners and domestic opposition before reintroducing the bill, which, unfortunately, was not the case.

Now, however, it is essential to focus on what our partners told us and what the government had taken into consideration.

What is your impression of the government’s reaction to the statements made by the EU, the Council of Europe, the USA, and, most recently, by Chancellor Olaf Scholz?

What possible impact this law may have on Georgia’s European perspective if left unaltered by the ruling party?

- Certainly, I do not think that we can talk about any problem of misunderstanding here. The PM of Georgia had been well aware of the position of his German counterpart before the visit to Berlin.

You might well remember that last year, when this bill was introduced for the first time, almost all strategic partners, including the German colleagues, provided our government with fairly comprehensive explanations about the risks that this law would pose to the achievement of Georgia’s strategic goals.

Generally, it is clear that the government is following a specifically designed plan and communication strategy, one of the major elements of which is the conspicuous display of power, including ignoring the recommendations made by the West. Currently, it is hard to predict how their tactic is going to change. The course of action will depend on many factors.

When it comes to the influence of this process on our European perspective: it is noteworthy that since 1990s the government of Georgia and our strategic partners have often had diverging positions on the aspects of both domestic and foreign policy, which is quite natural.

In this case, however, the adoption of this law risks to create fundamental problems in the relationships with our partners and may escalate the confrontation that currently remains limited to political rhetoric. As I have mentioned, this is basically conditioned by the fact that the reintroduced bill specifically targets the funds provided by these countries and organisations.

Adoption of this law will raise more questions about the country’s goals and erode our partners’ trust in the Government of Georgia.

Of course, the trust would be also undermined by the fact that the government of Georgia did not uphold the promise it made on an international level following the withdrawal of the “foreign agents” law last year. Unfortunately, considering the challenges the country is currently facing, the ensuing problems will not be solely limited to the ruling majority.

- I would like to ask you about the PM’s statement, which was published yesterday. He said he has offered the ambassadors of the US and the EU countries to engage in open discussion around the bill. What could be the purpose of such an offer in your opinion?

- I cannot say anything about that. I do not recall that any European government ever made a similar proposal to ambassadors accredited in their countries. Of course, the ambassadors are not going to consider this as an invitation for discussion.

- We know that you are actively working on NATO-Georgia relations and issues concerning Georgia’s perspective in the Northern Alliance. Not a while ago, due to the Russia-Ukraine war, NATO’s 75th anniversary celebration was relatively modest. However, it is evident that NATO is preparing for the Washington Summit. What could be Georgia’s expectations in terms of the upcoming summit, and do you think Georgia will be invited to attend?

- This summit is important both in terms of the anniversary celebrations and the abundance of problems on which the allies will have to make decisions.

Considering the current risks and challenges, of course, much attention will be given to strengthening the Alliance’s mechanisms of deterrence and defence and, in this regard, on fostering the collaboration between the USA and the European states. Of course, the special emphasis will be made on the issues of the Russia-Ukraine war. It is quite salient that NATO remains careful in terms of further expansion of the Alliance.

I believe the dynamics in this regard will largely depend on the results of the military activities in Ukraine.

When it comes to Georgia, it is hard to make any predictions. I believe this will also depend on the general background of the relationships between Georgia and its strategic partners [at that time].


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