Diana Kerselyan: "We Do Not Intend to Be Recognised as Enemies of the People"

 Diana Kerselyan, board member of the Centre for Humanitarian Programs in Sukhum.

Diana Kerselyan, board member of the Centre for Humanitarian Programs in Sukhum.

Elena Zavodskaya — The bill "On Non-Commercial Organisations and Individuals Acting as Foreign Agents" has been submitted to the Parliament of Abkhazia and is expected to be considered shortly. Diana Kerselyan, a board member of the non-governmental organisation Centre for Humanitarian Programs and head of the public human rights office, discussed with 'Ekho Kavkaza' (Echo of the Caucasus) the potential societal impacts should this bill be enacted.

Elena Zavodskaya: In the Parliament, the bill regarding foreign agents is set for imminent review. At the same time, we are witnessing a significantly negative and widespread reaction in society against this law's adoption. What's prompting this reaction, and what concerns do people have?"

Diana Kerselyan: The initiative to adopt this law isn't a recent development but has been a matter of concern for many years, starting around 2013 or 2014. Throughout this period, individuals who grasp the potential repercussions of this law have attempted to engage with parliament deputies and government officials, advocating against its enactment. The scope of individuals who could be affected by this legislation is broader than many realise. While initially, discussions revolved around amendments to the law governing the activities of non-commercial organisations regarding foreign agents, we now face a standalone law targeting organisations and individuals as foreign agents. This proposal is arguably the most stringent attempt to regulate this sphere. I firmly believe this law is fundamentally unacceptable and must not be passed under any circumstances, as it contravenes constitutional norms and severely restricts people's civil and political rights.

It's crucial for everyone to understand that the discussion extends beyond those employed by non-governmental non-commercial organisations. It encompasses a far wider array of individuals, including political activists, journalists, and diaspora members, essentially, anyone who has had any interaction with international organisations. Launching such a repressive mechanism will only lead to increasingly strict measures over time. The fact that someone might not be affected by this law today doesn't guarantee they won't be encompassed by future amendments aimed at expanding the definition of foreign agents. It's evident to us that the motive behind this law isn't to regulate NGO activities or oversee international organisations' operations but rather to curb the freedom of expression, to limit the dissemination of views that diverge from those of the ruling party.

– Everyone is discussing the significant infringement on people's rights. Can you detail, according to this law, the specific restrictions that will be imposed on the citizens of Abkhazia who are affected by this legislation?"

–  Indeed, the restrictions are extensive. Under this law, individuals and employees of organisations identified as foreign agents will be barred from engaging in teaching, participating in public debates, roundtables, and conferences, and from involvement in electoral campaigns. In essence, this will strip such individuals of a broad array of political and civil rights. Envisioning such constraints within a democratic society is virtually inconceivable. It fundamentally breaches the principles of our democratic framework, amounting to a form of segregation by isolating this group from the rest of society, which retains its full rights. Frankly, it's challenging to comprehend how such a model could be operational in a democratic state in the 21st century.

– Diana, in public discourse, it's evident that many do not grasp the full significance of this law or its repercussions. They suggest, somewhat dismissively, 'Just label us as foreign agents and carry on as before.' How would you counter that perspective?

– Indeed, this represents a significant misunderstanding. I need to emphasise that nearly everyone involved in the non-commercial sector or in civil organisations would find it untenable to function under such a designation. But the issue extends beyond merely being tagged as foreign agents due to receiving Western funding. The real concern lies not with the funding but with the extensive restrictions on rights that the law imposes.

– Diana, from your viewpoint, what necessitates this law? Why has there been such a relentless effort over the years to introduce it, now attempting to enact it in its most stringent form?

– It's apparent that the law's purpose isn't genuinely to regulate NGO activities or those of international organisations. That's merely a facade because existing legislation already provides for the regulation of non-commercial organisations, complete with effective oversight mechanisms. We fulfil our reporting obligations to the Ministry of Justice, including annual reports, applications for charitable status, and quarterly updates, besides undergoing independent international audits. Thus, portraying this law as a means of enhancing control is misleading and transparently so. The underlying intent is to establish a repressive tool aimed at suppressing dissent and the civic engagement of individuals critical of official policies. Some argue that NGOs should focus solely on social and charitable issues without 'interfering' in politics. However, as citizens, we are entitled under the Constitution and law to the same rights as everyone else, including the right to voice our opinions and advocate our positions through various means, whether in writing, at public demonstrations, etc. The real aim behind this law is to stifle us, to strip away our ability to express dissenting views.

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– Diana, it is well known that non-governmental organisations in Abkhazia fill a significant void and carry out functions abandoned by the state. If civil society and non-governmental organisations were to be severely impacted by this repressive legislation, what would be the consequences for society? Which sectors of NGO activities would be affected, and which citizens of Abkhazia would suffer from the NGOs' inability to continue their various forms of work?

In reality, civil organisations engage in a broad array of activities. The real loss would not just be felt by the NGOs themselves, but profoundly by our beneficiaries—the people we serve. This includes a diverse array of individuals: those with disabilities, those suffering from serious illnesses, those requiring legal support, and all the children who have been receiving vaccinations for the past 30 years since the war ended, made possible through international aid. These individuals seek us out, knowing they will receive professional assistance here at no cost. They are spared from the indignity of offering bribes or facing humiliation at the hands of bureaucrats. They are assured of receiving the advice they need, and, if necessary, further assistance. Our support extends to minors from troubled backgrounds, in legal conflict, and to women and children experiencing domestic violence. Our reach is so extensive that it virtually encompasses the republic's entire populace.

Consider our agricultural and environmental programs, among others. Even if our organisation focuses solely on environmental initiatives, our employees' outrage over the illegal development of Sukhum’s central area, in violation of all laws and regulations, could still result in us being labelled as foreign agents, regardless of our actions. Hence, I believe this law will universally affect everyone involved in this field. I am particularly curious about how our state will respond when our programs are forced to shut down, and all those individuals who currently rely on us for assistance turn to government offices for help. What actions will they take in such a scenario? A typical democratic state delegates a portion of its responsibilities for providing various social services to the civil sector. This delegation is standard practice, especially since we are not seeking assistance from the state; on the contrary, we are aiding it.

Of course, we cannot provide endless consultations on various legal issues, especially when these arise from a lack of necessary laws or from contradictions within them. Silence is not an option for us. We must inform the state about the significant number of people who have approached us with specific problems, which often stem from gaps in the legislation. We encourage a collaborative approach to find solutions, proposing actionable steps... In a functioning democracy, authorities would welcome such initiatives and even express gratitude for our contributions. Yet, in recent years, we've observed a troubling trend: the space for dialogue between the government and civil society has steadily decreased, now reaching a critical low.

– And how would you, Diana, explain this? Why is this occurring? Do you have an answer to this question?

– This question is multifaceted. From my perspective, there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding within our state about the role of civil society; the authorities perceive some form of threat in our activities and attempt to neutralise what they see as a risk, even though no real danger exists. Engaging in dialogue between civil society and the government always opens avenues for constructive solutions, enhancing the state's efficiency. This, in turn, benefits those in power; by modernising and streamlining, you not only score points for yourself but also improve your chances of retaining power, should that be your aim. It appears there is a gap in understanding how society should operate within a democracy and how it should interact with its governing bodies. However, this is not the sole issue. External factors also play a significant role. The deteriorating geopolitical climate in our broader region has a direct impact on us. The developments in the Russian Federation, our strategic partner, where similar processes have unfolded, affect us too. It seems as though there's an attempt to replicate those processes here. Yet, this mimetic approach is fundamentally flawed; it's impossible to transplant practices from one country to another wholesale due to differences in context, culture, traditions, legislation, and numerous other factors. These factors dictate why certain things happen in one country and why our approach must differ. The world isn't simply black and white; it's filled with shades of grey that must be considered if we aim to preserve our sovereignty and independence, enhance state efficacy, and, ultimately, secure recognition from the international community.

– Asida Lomia, the chairperson of the Children's Fund, spoke out on social media, there is a video recording, she declared that she categorically rejects the label of foreign agent and will not wear it. Diana, can you predict how civil society, how non-governmental organisations, will react if this law is passed? What will happen if the deputies pass this law?

– I completely agree with Asida Lomia, for whom it is unacceptable to wear the label of 'foreign agent.' It's unacceptable for me and for all my colleagues. And this is understandable because we all come from the Soviet Union, and the connotation here is obvious for us. We are not going to be in a position of victims; we are not going to be recognised as enemies of the people because some people in power decided they could afford to hang this label on respected people, on people who have made a huge contribution to the independence of this state and to the building of a modern democratic state. Look what's happening in the Russian Federation; many people who are recognised as foreign agents comfort themselves with the idea that in Russia, being labelled as a foreign agent has become an achievement, meaning you are honest, decent, educated, intelligent, and you have a civic stance, and so on. But it seems to me that this smacks of a victimhood state, and we are not ready to be victims of anyone. And if, God forbid, this law is adopted, we will undoubtedly continue to fight. There are mechanisms for this; there is the Constitutional Court because this law is unconstitutional, it violates the Constitution, it breaches important constitutional norms related to the observance of human rights and freedoms.

This article was published by Ekho Kavkaza and is translated from Russian.




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