“Dark day” for Georgia’s democracy

To update: On March 9, the ruling party announced that it would withdraw the bills, arguing that they had failed to explain to the public the perceived necessity of the law. Authorities should ensure that the bills do not come back in any form and ensure a safe and conducive environment for this to happen civil society in Georgia.

Last night, police in Tbilisi, Georgia, used massive amounts of tear gas and water cannons to disperse thousands of peaceful demonstrators who had spontaneously gathered to protest a bill on “foreign agents” that the ruling majority had passed on a first reading by parliament whipped.

The police arrested dozens of people against whom various administrative and criminal proceedings are now being instituted. I observed the protest myself and see no legitimate reason for the government to use such force to restrict this peaceful gathering.

If passed, the bill would require NGOs and media outlets to register as “agents of foreign influence” if they receive 20 percent of their funding from abroad. These groups would be subject to additional scrutiny, investigations and fines, and their leaders could be sent to prison for breaking the law. A second bill, to be voted on tomorrow, would make similar demands on individuals.

The bill must go through two more readings to become law.

Both draft laws run counter to Georgia’s human rights obligations to protect the rights to freedom of expression and association, and there is no doubt that they are intended to have a chilling effect on the country’s critical voices.

This threat is real. The Georgian authorities claim that the draft law aims to increase funding transparency. But their statements suggest that if the bills are passed, they will use them on a witch hunt to stigmatize and punish independent groups, the media and critical voices.

Just yesterday, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili told the media: “The future of our country…no longer belongs to foreign agents.” oppose the interests of the country and the Church”.

The US Embassy in Georgia aptly described yesterday as a “dark day” for the country’s democracy. Georgia’s other partners issued similarly strong statements and warnings. Their message is clear and unambiguous: passing a foreign agent law would be at odds with Georgia’s stated commitment to human rights and its Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

I hope that Georgian leaders will heed these warnings and ensure a safe and conducive environment for the country’s civil society, rather than presenting a bill that would clearly hinder and undermine it. As I write this, another rally is taking place outside Parliament to protest the law. I hope that this time the authorities will fully respect freedom of assembly and will not unduly interfere in the peaceful expression of grievances.