What do ‘foreign agent’ laws have to do with gender ideology? Reflections from the HRFN & Ariadne joint day


Mariam Gagoshashvili


As we gathered in Tbilisi, Georgia for Ariadne and HRFN convenings, thousands were demonstrating daily in the streets of Tbilisi next to the conference venue. Our evening events on the rooftop of Stamba Hotel were accompanied by Georgian wine and rapidly approaching sounds of whistles and chants. We could see colonies of people marching with flags and banners, blocking the traffic, and chanting “No to Russian Law”, “Yes to Europe” and “Sa-kar-tve-lo[1]”.

For many conference attendees, it was a bold and brave move for HRFN and Ariadne to host their convenings in Georgia in the context of the daily anti-Russia and anti-government protests, a growing crackdown on civil society and independent media, and increased attacks on LGBTQI rights and communities.

For me and my fellow Georgians in philanthropy, the decision to host these meetings in Tbilisi was a strategic opportunity to put the largely invisibilised and underfunded region of the South Caucasus on the radar of funders amid political turmoil in Georgia and the recent, and ongoing, conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Symbolically, the overlapping day between the Ariadne and HRFN gatherings fell on April 24 – the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. Reflecting on the meaning of this day provided us, grantmakers from the region, with an opportunity to help participants gain insight into the complex and invisibilised histories and lived realities of the South Caucasus and their interconnectedness with other struggles, such as those in Ukraine and Palestine.

However, some participants, particularly from Global North and West, regarded the choice of the location as bold and brave mostly due to perceived risks associated with travelling to this faraway, unknown place for some, or a ‘highly dangerous’ and ‘under-developed’ place for others. Concerns over participant safety arose in contrast to what I, as an HRFN and Ariadne advisor, and my fellow Georgian grantmakers had hoped for – concerns and mobilisation over the (dire) state of funding for human rights movements in the Caucasus and its neighbouring Central Asia and Eastern Europe.

These regions have long been caught in the crossfires between such global geopolitical superpowers as Russia and the West (EU and USA). As peoples, as nations, we often exist as a battlefield between these forces. Georgia and Armenia alone have endured centuries of colonisation, including nearly two hundred years of Russian rule and before that, the rule of the Ottoman and Persian Empires. For Lara Aharonian of Women’s Fund Armenia, one of the panellists for the HRFN-Ariadne joint day plenary that I had the privilege to moderate, ‘politics of erasure, denial and land/home loss from the Ottoman times directly inform and impact the present day conflicts and attempts at erasure of such places as Artsakh and the Armenian quarter in Jerusalem’.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 resulted in a mass exodus of its citizens to neighbouring countries, among them Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Georgia – some fleeing political persecution, but most fleeing Western sanctions imposed on Russia. Altynay Kambekova of Digital Defenders Partnership, another panellist for the HRFN-Ariadne plenary, remarked that  “Russian coloniality has shaped and defined identities in Kazakhstan and has used language and racial difference to dominate and subjugate”. This relationship with Russia has entered the next stage of coloniality for all these regions – manifested in countries being gentrified, languages erased, cultures appropriated, and our peoples continuously and with new rigour constructed as ethnic or racialised ‘Others’

As women, as queer and trans people, experiencing systemic oppression and marginalisation, our bodies are battlefields within our own countries and communities.

Russian colonialism and coloniality extend beyond the South Caucasus and Central Asia. North Caucasian republics continue to be annexed by the Russian Federation. There are at least 40 legally recognised Indigenous groups and over 100 ethnic groups in Russia with varying degrees of recognition as Indigenous or ethnic entities (Cultural Survival).

While the Western world has gained some insight into the struggles of the Ukrainian people, the situation in Belarus has been largely overlooked. According to another panellist, Tony Snizhko of Mama Cash, ‘Slavic supremacy is based on the forced idea of ‘Russian world’, which erases local languages and cultures… in Belarus you can be detained for speaking Belarusian publicly’.

As women, as queer and trans people, experiencing systemic oppression and marginalisation, our bodies are battlefields within our own countries and communities. In Georgia, the so-called ‘anti-LGBT propaganda’ bill, introduced in March, aims to further limit LGBTQI rights and crack down on already oppressed and marginalised communities. According to Amnesty International, ‘the bill envisages a long list of homophobic and transphobic measures, including an explicit ban on sharing information or holding public gatherings that can be regarded as ‘promoting same-sex relationships,’ prohibition of adoption by same-sex couples, prohibition of sex change and recognition of any non-binary gender, among others.’ Tony Snizhko, after fleeing political persecution in Belarus first to Ukraine and then to Georgia, witnessed ‘how Russian influence pushes back local social justice movements [in Georgia] and how Russian money feeds into far-right conservatism’.

The fact that the ruling ‘Georgian Dream’ party introduced four consecutive legislative initiatives in March-April this year before the upcoming parliamentary elections in October, speaks volumes. These are Russian-inspired ‘foreign agents’ and ‘anti-LGBT propaganda’ bills, including the abolition of mandatory gender quotas for political parties, and amendments to the tax code that provide tax benefits for moving offshore assets into Georgia. (This latter move benefits not only the Georgian billionaire behind the ruling party but also countless Russian oligarchs affected by Western sanctions.) At the same time, the ruling party representatives have declared their intention to ‘review’ Georgia’s liberal abortion legislation in the near future.

The law, officially called ‘On the Transparency of Foreign Influence’ is a copy of the Russian ‘foreign agents’ law. Among most former Soviet states, ‘foreign agent’ has a connotation of a foreign spy. In the context of the evident pro-Russian political orientation and Russian coloniality, the foreign spy becomes the Western spy. Likewise, since the violent attacks on the first public LGBTQI demonstrations in Georgia in 2012-2013, the conservative Right mobilised by the Orthodox Christian Church has been promoting the narrative of LGBTQI communities being “un-Georgian” and a Western import – a strategy we’ve seen worldwide.

Populist fears around ‘gender ideology’ are weaponised in this effort and used as a diversion from what’s really at stake – the loss of national sovereignty as well as individual rights and freedoms.

The rhetoric of national security and protection from “foreign influence” is used to target civil society and restrict and criminalise its actions while also aiming to undermine its reputation and popular support. LGBTQI, feminist, and human rights activism are being portrayed as a Western import – and activists as foreign spies. Furthermore, the right-wing actors continue portraying Russia as a value-aligned neighbour, with whom Georgia shares cultural, religious, and historical ties.

The state uses national security rhetoric to crack down on civic space. Populist fears around ‘gender ideology’ are weaponised in this effort and used as a diversion from what’s really at stake – the loss of national sovereignty as well as individual rights and freedoms. Anti-gender opposition becomes a central strategy in a geopolitical battle and in one country’s choice of political path and allies.

To my knowledge, Ariadne and HRFN convenings ended without any security incidents associated with the above-mentioned legislative initiatives and the resistance movement against them. The populist government, being well aware of its dependency on Western aid, only benefits from such international conferences and continues to play a two-faced game appeasing both its EU/US allies and Russia. The grassroots popular movement against the country’s pro-Russian orientation is explicitly pro-Western and is only happy with the presence of a global philanthropic community in Tbilisi. And to be honest, they have a bigger fish to fry than focusing on our meetings – they are busy organising at the parliament and designing response strategies.

‘This is How We Win’ is what I thought during the days leading up to the Easter[2]eve demonstration in Tbilisi as I witnessed the resistance movement grow in scale, expand its geographic scope, and diversify its strategies.

First, the youth leading the movement is revising the iconic motto from the 19th-century Georgian national liberation movement “Language, Homeland, Faith” into a more secular “Language, Homeland, Unity,” which de-centres the dominant Orthodox Christianity and honours Georgia’s religious diversity. The pre-Easter protests are an amalgamation of political chants, national folk songs and dances, quotes from historical figures, vows read out loud at a war hero memorial, and surprisingly – prayers. At the Easter Eve demonstration, activists combine all concepts into one “Language, Homeland, Faith, Unity” and light up these words with candles in the street between the parliament and an ancient church – thus effectively reclaiming faith from the realm of the far right, which has maintained a monopoly on all things patriotic, traditional, and religious. 

Foreign funders leave Georgia, but the resistance movement remains. The question is, will the global funding ecosystem meet the challenge of funding grassroots-led intersectional resistance and response strategies that address the root cause of anti-gender opposition? Will the same level of care, accompaniment, and protection that the conference organisers extended to their participants become a new standard, especially for gatherings organised in Global North and West, and not only reserved for those held in the Majority World? Will funders (re)prioritise and/or step up their commitment to Caucasus, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe to support movements, crushed between Russian and Western Imperialisms, in choosing a third path – a path towards themselves? Instead of being perpetually forced to choose one or the other, what if our collective geopolitical orientation could be towards our self-determination and sovereignty while nurturing interdependencies within and among our regions?

[1] Sakartvelo means Georgia in the Georgian language

[2] Orthodox Christian Easter was observed on May 5 2024

Mariam Gagoshashvili is a Gender Justice Grantmaker, Activist, and Advocate. Mariam has held previous leadership positions within Astrea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, the Urgent Action Fund, the Global Fund for Women and FRIDA – Young Feminist Fund. 

Comments (0)

Sonja Schelper

Hi Mariam, I completely agree with your analysis! Hope that more Major funders will understand and follow.

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