In Georgia, an animal shelter worries it's become a 'foreign agent'

By Felix Light

TBILISI (Reuters) - For more than a decade, Sara Kemecsei’s animal shelter has cared for the stray dogs of the Georgian capital.

By soliciting small donations of $5 or $10 apiece, mostly from abroad, she offers shelter and finds new homes for some of an estimated 500,000 neglected animals that wander the streets of the South Caucasus country of 3.7 million.

But under a contentious bill passed by the country’s parliament on Tuesday, her small shelter on Tbilisi’s outskirts, which cares for up to 50 canines at a time, could be designated an “agent of foreign influence”.

“The only interest that we pursue is the interest of these dogs, and I challenge anyone to tell me which one of them is actually a foreign power,” said Kemecsei.

The bill on “foreign agents” has sparked a major political crisis in Georgia since the ruling party said in April that it would reintroduce the draft law, which it previously shelved last year after protests.

On Tuesday, Georgia’s parliament voted to override a presidential veto of the bill, setting the stage for it to be signed into law by parliament's speaker in the coming days.

Thousands have taken to the streets in some of the biggest protests Georgia has seen since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Opposition groups have dubbed the bill “the Russian law”, comparing it to similar legislation that Russia has used against critics of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.

Western countries have criticised the bill, with the United States threatening to sanction Georgian officials unless it is withdrawn. The European Union, which gave Georgia candidate status in December, has said it will be an obstacle to talks on Tbilisi joining the bloc.

The Georgian government, which maintains that it wants to join the EU, says that the bill is necessary to protect Georgian sovereignty and promote transparency. It says Western countries are using the country’s NGOs to drag Georgia into confrontation with Russia.

But on the ground, many NGO workers fear that the law will stop them from providing services that the state fails to offer.

Kemecsei said that the draft law will force her shelter to shoulder large new administrative expenses, while also leaving them vulnerable to fines of 10,000 lari ($3,690) for mistakes made in paperwork, which she said would likely force the shelter to close down outright.

“It will add massive additional administrative costs. So on one hand, we will be having more costs. On the other hand, we will have much less income,” she said.

“I find it immoral and unethical that we are doing the government's work for well over a decade now and we are being called foreign agents.”

Vazha Kasaraishvili, program manager at Tanadgoma, an NGO that provides support to drug addicts and HIV patients, says that the law puts his group’s work at risk.

Tanadgoma, which means “support” in Georgian, runs a residential rehabilitation clinic in a village outside Tbilisi that offers help and rehabilitation to those struggling with drug addiction.

He estimates that there are more than 5,000 intravenous drug users in Georgia, with limited state support provided for them.

Kasaraishvili fears that the “foreign agent” designation, which many say is reminiscent of Soviet-era denunciations of spies, will put off the foreign donors who make up the bulk of his financing.

“We don't know what will happen after this law goes through. We don’t know what will happen with our international donors. Maybe they will stop supporting Georgia at all,” said Kasaraishvili.

Some NGO workers are open in their opposition to the law, taking to the street in the near-daily protests against the legislation.

Nino Evgenidze, head of the Economic Policy Research Center think tank, has been a regular attendee at protests against the law which she fears could shut down her organisation.

Evgenidze told Reuters she saw the bill as redolent of Soviet era repressions, and opposition to it as “a generational fight”.

“All our parents, grandpas and their parents, they were killed, exiled or jailed under these accusations that they were the agents of foreign influence,” she said.

(Reporting by Felix Light, Editing by William Maclean)