Yesterday Parliament of Georgia passed a law which in fact outlaws political activity. Furthermore, to a degree it even outlaws political thinking. The law amends the Organic Law on Political Associations of Citizens, the statute which once controlled political parties as such. Hereinafter it is going to control non-political, non-for-profit or business organizations too and, strangely enough, even individuals.
Apparently, the intention of the national legislature, in which the constitutional majority of seats are held by the President-Saakashvili-led political party, the National Movement, is to block financial sources for political parties and also for any individual or entity that may be “directly or indirectly associated with political parties”. The timing for adopting such a law now is easily explainable: (a) general elections are to be held next year; and (b) after almost three years of the ruling party’s domination and almost no opposition activity, there appeared a wealthy person who said he was going to fund some parties in opposition and to set up one of his own. There was a need to tie him up.
But what does it mean to be directly or indirectly associated with a political party? The law says that it is about the costs of a legal entity being directly or indirectly associated with the goals and activities of a political party. This may be party understandable. If, for example, we think of an NGO or a business entity which pays for the political advertisements of a political party it would be more or less reasonable to conclude that this NGO or business entity is associated with a political party. The question is, however, why should the NGOs and business entities be prohibited from paying for such an advertisement? What is the legitimate interest that we may pursue by such prohibition? The other question is what if an NGO or a business entity is not funding any activities of a political party but any employee of the same happens to be a member of a political party? Would it be deemed that this NGO or business entity is associated with the political party? I guess it would and, therefore, the NGO or the business entity would be subject to severe financial regulations described below. Thus the law targets not only political parties, but independent think-tank groups, research institutes and political analyst clubs.
There are some more incomprehensible rules regarding the “direct or indirect association with a political party” which may have a chilling effect to a whole society. In particular, an NGO or a business entity will be found to be associated with the political party and, therefore, be subject to the prohibitions of this law if the “representative” of or “any other person” from this NGO or business entity calls the voters to vote or not to vote for any political party. It is a prohibition of political campaigning! Nothing more and nothing less! And how about the freedom of expression then? Is that something that is no longer necessary in this country? And how does this fit into the solemnly proclaimed goal to achieve “Euro-Atlantic integration”?
What kind of financial regulations are prescribed by the new amendments? Here are some of them: (a) no funds may be accepted by a political party and/or entities and individuals “directly or indirectly associated with it” from the legal entities. There is an absolute and unconditional prohibition of that! And what is the legitimate justification for it? (b) a political party and/or entities and individuals “directly or indirectly associated with it” may not accept more than GEL 60,000 a year from each citizen. Thus, if a political party is lucky enough to find 10 citizens in this country who may afford that amount of money and may be willing to donate it to the political party of their choice (which is not so easy to do in the country that ranks 113 in the World Bank list of countries by GDP), it will collect not more than GEL 600,000 from citizens. And what it can do with that amount of money? Nothing more than to buy just 1.5 hours of advertising time in the national broadcasters, such as Imedi, where each minute of political advertising at prime time cost GEL 7,152 during local elections in 2010. The question is how one can compete with such limited resources.
Against the background of such severe financial constraints it looks really strange that the law allows the political parties and associated individuals/entities to generate annual incomes up to 0.2% of GDP and to spend the same percentage during a year. The official sources say that the country’s GDP for the last year amounted to about GEL 20.8 billion, 0.2% of which would amount to GEL 41.6 million. This is pretty good for a country like this, and pretty unrealistic to all political parties. Well, all but one. Which political party would be able to “find” 693 citizens of Georgia to “donate” GEL 60,000 apiece? The right answer is the National Movement of Georgia. Why? Ask citizens of this country and lots of them will tell you stories about themselves, their relatives, friends or neighbors who owned some property or businesses and were either forcibly deprived of those or were “gently” advised to make a choice: either to relinquish their properties to the State or face some strict consequences for their obstinacy.
But let us get back to the brand new amendments to the Political Associations Law. What happens if a political party or any associated entity/individual violates any of the foregoing rules? Apart from some other penalties, they will be deprived of the funds donated in violation of this new law. In other words, such funds will be expropriated by the State. Maybe based on a court decision? Not at all, an order by the Chamber of Control is enough. The constitutional provision that no property may be expropriated without a court order is totally disregarded by a democratically elected legislature.
But most frightening rule is that all those Draconian constraints and penalties are applicable retroactively. The parties and all others “directly or indirectly associated with them” have a duty to refund within 3 days any sums that they may have received before the enactment of this law “in violation of this law” to those who provided such funds. In case of failure to comply with this rule the sums in question will be expropriated by the State. And where has gone the principle of legality that prescribes that no law which penalizes an action or omission or otherwise affects an individual may be retroactively applicable?
The USSR and its Communist law prohibited multiparty system, political pluralism and private ownership of land and other means of production. The present government of Georgia is not so brave as to abolish these rights and freedoms completely. And it does not have to. It is quite enough to acknowledge them in words but make them totally theoretical and illusory. For me this kind of life is not any better than it was under the Soviets. So, welcome back to the USSR!
Alexander Baramidze is a lawyer currently working for Bidzina Ivanishvili