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Georgia to Soften Party Funding Law

Suspicions that legislation is designed to curb political ambitions of one wealthy businessman.
By Teo Bichikashvili

The Georgian government appears ready to make concessions on its controversial political party law, but it is not clear whether they will be enough to appease opponents of the bill.

The ruling United National Movement party says the law, which came into force in December and restricts the extent to which businesses can fund political parties, is essential for combating corruption.

Critics of the law point out that so far, it has only been used against Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire tycoon who launched a campaign against President Mikhail Saakashvili last year. (See Georgian Authorities Try to Clip Businessman's Wings and Billionaire's Political Bid Unsettles Georgian Establishment .)

Several dozen media and non-government organisations have signed up to the “This Affects You” campaign, launched on February 16. 

They argue that the legislation restricts not just funding for parties but also freedom of speech and public activism generally, and thus poses a serious threat to democracy. They also believe it gives Georgia’s Audit Chamber unconstitutional powers to probe party finances.

Responding to these concerns on March 5, the speaker of parliament, David Bakradze, said the legislation’s wording could be “improved” so that it “states clearly that the law imposes no limitations on legitimate activity non-government organisations and donors. While the law’s aims must not suffer, NGOs need to feel sure that the law does not impinge on their legitimate activities.”

Critics of the law, however, say focusing NGOs alone is misleading.

“We are glad that parliament has clearly spelled out its position that the legislation needs to be amended,” Tamar Chugoshvili, chair of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, said. “But we don’t think it’s right to focus solely on removing problems facing NGOs or international organisations.”

There are also concerns about the law at international level. After visiting Georgia, Maina Kiai, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on freedom of assembly issues, said on February 13 that the new law and funding rules created “an uneven playing field” and appeared motivated by “a desire to control the political activities of a specific individual”.

In January, Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream movement was accused of accepting 1.1 million laris, about 660,000 US dollars, from a fictional donor, allegedly in an attempt to evade the new funding rules. The Audit Chamber’s party finance section ordered the movement to return the money.

Georgian Dream said it would comply, but accused the Audit Chamber of acting illegally.

The “This Affects You” campaign is also pressing for changes to other parts of the law, including a provision that in cases of vote-buying, the voter as well as the bribe-payer can go to jail for three years.

Vakhtang Balavadze, a member of parliament from the ruling party, disagreed with this demand, saying, “Of course, the largest share of the guilt lies with the person paying the bribe, but the recipient is also part of it.”

Akaki Minashvili, the chairman of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, held a meeting with international organisations present in Georgia on March 7 to explain the law to them. The meeting was closed to journalists, but clearly did not go smoothly.

“The explanations did not satisfy us,” Levan Tsutskiridze of the Netherlands Institute for Multi-Party Democracy said.

Teo Bichikashvili works for the GHN news agency in Georgia. 

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