Georgian protesters gather outside parliament as lawmakers vote in Tbilisi on Friday to scrap their controversial “foreign agents” law. Vano Shlamov/AFP via Getty Images Hide caption
Vano Shlamov/AFP via Getty Images
Vano Shlamov/AFP via Getty Images
Lawmakers in the former Soviet republic of Georgia on Friday voted to drop a controversial law on “foreign agents” after days of mass protests in the capital Tbilisi and widespread criticism from the West.
The law would have required all individuals, civil society organizations and media that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as foreign agents, opening the door to surveillance and possible sanctions.
Supporters say such a measure would increase transparency, but many critics fear it would stifle dissent, the media and democracy itself. They compare it to a similar law in Russia, which the Kremlin used to crack down on NGOs and independent journalists.
Thousands protested outside the parliament building in Tbilisi this week in demonstrations that turned violent after police responded with water cannons and pepper spray.
The ruling Georgian Dream party changed course on Thursday.
“As the ruling party responsible to every member of society, we have decided to unconditionally withdraw this law that we support,” read a statement translated by RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty.
According to the BBC, lawmakers referred to the need to reduce “confrontation” in society. But they also said the bill had been “presented in a bad light and in a misleading way” and that they plan to do more to clarify its purpose once the “emotional background wears off”.
Eto Buziashvili, a researcher at the Atlantic Council, said many in Georgia viewed the withdrawal as a “tactical retreat” that gave lawmakers time to regroup before reinstating the law.
“Protesters are posting on social media not to calm down and not to take this as a big win because there is always one [the] threaten that the ruling party will re-enact this law,” Buziashvili told Morning Edition on Thursday.
Protesters also returned to the streets after the announcement to urge the complete scrapping of the bill and the release of more than 100 people arrested at the previous days’ demonstrations, the Associated Press reports. (The Home Office said on Friday it had freed all 133).
The following morning, lawmakers voted 35 to 1 against the bill in a session that lasted four minutes and included no discussion.
Many activists, as well as Georgian officials – including the president – cheered the repeal of the bill but indicated the fight was far from over. And it comes at a time when the country that borders Russia is pushing to move closer to the West.
President Salome Surabichvili had vowed to veto the law, even though the majority of lawmakers could have overruled it. She congratulated the Georgian people on their victory in a statement and video released Thursday from a work trip to the United States
“This will of the people was wonderfully demonstrated,” she said. “This was evident not only in Georgia, but also abroad. All our partners saw this extraordinary attitude and really the will of the people for Georgia’s European path.”
What the law would do
The Foreign Agents Act is actually two pieces of legislation that immediately drew backlash when lawmakers introduced them in February.
The first required NGOs and media outlets that receive more than 20% of their annual revenues from a “foreign power” (which includes government agencies, foreign citizens and other foundations and associations under international law) to register with the Ministry of Justice of Georgia.
They would also have to file an electronic financial statement and data about that funding, which Human Rights Watch said duplicates tax reporting requirements and compromises people’s privacy. Those who do not comply could be fined the equivalent of $9,600.
“Proponents of the bill have not explained how this duplicate and onerous reporting increases transparency or accountability, but rather appears to be a blatant attempt to limit the ability of associations and the media to operate freely and independently, and to stigmatize independent groups.” , said Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
A second version of the bill, introduced later that month, expanded the definition of foreign agents to include individuals and increased penalties from fines to up to five years in prison.
Activists and officials in Georgia and beyond were quick to criticize the proposed legislation. It has been criticized by hundreds of local non-governmental groups and media, the United Nations in Georgia, the US State Department and the European Union, among others.
“[The law] would stigmatize and silence independent voices and citizens of Georgia committed to building a better future for their own communities,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in February, adding that his acceptance “may could undermine Georgia’s Atlantic integration”.
Demonstrators gather near the Georgian Parliament building in Tbilisi on Thursday to protest the law on foreign agents. Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP Hide subtitles
Critics draw parallels to a repressive Russian law
Critics of the bill say it is modeled on Russia’s “Foreign Agents Law,” passed in 2012 and used to crack down on NGOs, independent media and other Kremlin critics — particularly during the war in Ukraine.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled last year that the Russian law violates the European Convention, which includes an article protecting the right to organize. The restrictions on organizations that receive funds from foreign sources are unjustified and would impair their legitimate functions, Human Rights Watch said.
“No to Russian law” was one of the chants favored by protesters in Tbilisi this week.
Al Jazeera’s Robin Forestier-Walker, who was present at the protests, told All Things Considered on Wednesday that the law is “eerily similar” to Russia’s and “will have a very chilling effect on … those organizations that work really hard here.” trying to raise the democratic status of Georgia.”
More than 80% of Georgians support joining the European Union, and Forestier-Walker saw people of all generations protest the law.
“They are really saddened that their government is introducing Russian-style laws to muzzle freedom of speech and alternative opinions and basically really take control of this country in an authoritarian way,” he says.
He notes that the government has been “extremely capable of manipulating that section of society” concerned that Georgia is becoming too pro-Western and at risk of falling into another direct conflict with Russia (which invaded in 2008) .
“At the same time, I feel that many Georgians really say enough is enough that this law goes a step too far,” he adds.
Georgia is trying to join the EU and NATO
The vast majority of Georgians are pro-Western, and the country has aimed to formalize these alliances since gaining independence in 1991. But the ruling Georgian Dream party — led by oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made her fortune in Russia — has managed difficultly.
“Over the past few years, and particularly over the past 18 months, the ruling coalition of Georgia has taken a number of steps aimed at distancing the country from the West and gradually moving it into the sphere of influence of Russia,” the European Foreign Affairs Council said Relations wrote in December.
Georgia is a close partner – but not a member – of NATO, which has promised since 2008 that the country can join if it meets “all necessary requirements”.
It applied for EU membership along with Ukraine and Moldova in March 2022, shortly after the Russian invasion. It was the only one of the three not to be given candidate status, which EU leaders say will only happen if it implements certain reforms.
The law on foreign agents was seen as damaging to Georgia’s chances, with the EU itself warning that passing the law would be “inconsistent with EU norms and values”.
On Thursday, the EU delegation in Georgia welcomed the party’s decision to withdraw the law and encouraged its political leadership to resume pro-EU reforms.
Georgia’s President Zurabishvili told Bloomberg that she doesn’t think the near-passing of the draft law will jeopardize the country’s EU ambitions.
In fact, she believes it increased her chances “because it showed very effectively” where the Georgian public stands.