Home Immigration Law Georgia wants to repeal the law on foreign agents after massive protests

Georgia wants to repeal the law on foreign agents after massive protests

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Georgia wants to repeal the law on foreign agents after massive protests

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) – Georgia’s ruling party said Thursday it would withdraw bills that opponents – and tens of thousands of protesters swarming the capital – warned could stifle dissent and curb media freedom, leading to repression in the country Russian style would lead.

The bill would have required media and NGOs that receive more than 20% of their funding from foreign sources to register as “agents of foreign influence”. Opponents argued the bill was inspired by a similar law in Russia designed to silence critics and could hamper Georgia’s aspirations to one day join NATO and the European Union.

Protests against the law began last week in the capital Tbilisi but have intensified in recent days and have been met with tear gas and water cannons. According to the Interior Ministry, 133 protesters were arrested, although Georgian police announced late that they had released all who face administrative charges rather than criminal prosecution, without providing a number.

Citing the “controversy in society” the proposed law caused, the ruling Georgian Dream party and its allies said they would withdraw it.

This process could be complicated, however, as the bill has already passed the first of three required readings. The protests resumed on Thursday evening. Tens of thousands demonstrated to ensure the law is actually abandoned – and to demand the release of those arrested.

“Today is definitely the first victory this protest has brought, but this fight is not over yet,” said Nino Lomjaria, a former public defender who demonstrated in front of parliament on Thursday.

“We don’t trust the promises made by the ruling party, which they often only make to defuse protests,” she said.

A parliamentary session to abolish the bill was scheduled for Friday afternoon. The protesters promised to gather outside.

Georgia’s President Salome Zourabichvili had previously said she would veto the bill, indicating a growing rift between her and Georgian Dream. Zurabishvili is not affiliated with any party, but the ruling party backed her candidacy in the 2018 presidential election. However, since taking office, she has increasingly disagreed with her decisions and policies, particularly on foreign policy.

In recent years, opposition parties have accused Georgian Dream of pursuing a pro-Russian policy while at the same time asserting a Western orientation. Opponents accuse the party’s founder, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who has amassed a fortune in Russia, of continuing to call the shots in the Black Sea country of 3.7 million people, even though the former prime minister does not currently hold a government post.

The party has repeatedly denied any connection with Russia or any Moscow bias.

Relations between Russia and Georgia have been rocky and complicated since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The two countries fought a brief war in 2008 that ended with Georgia losing control of two pro-Russian separatist regions. Tbilisi had severed diplomatic ties with Moscow and the issue of the regions’ status remains a key nuisance, even if relations have improved somewhat.

Still, Russia has “many levers to pull,” according to James Nixey, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the London think tank Chatham House.

That includes political and economic influence, Nixey said, “not least in Ivanishvili himself, the man whose fortune was made in Russia and whose leanings are pro-Russian and anti-Western.”

Despite agreeing to withdraw the bill, the Georgian Dream party and its allies say public opinion has been misled by the proposal.

“The bill was mislabeled as ‘Russian law’ and its passage at first reading was presented in the eyes of a section of the public as a departure from the European course,” lawmakers said.

The drafters of the Georgia bill said it would clarify when companies’ work would be funded by agents of foreign states and would align with the US Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938.

The proposed law appeared to be similar to a law passed in Russia in 2012 that was designed to shut down or discredit organizations critical of the government and President Vladimir Putin.

The proposed law would allow Ivanishvili to consolidate his power and “sufficiently suppress” the opposition ahead of the next general election in 2024, Nixey said.

Ghia Nodia, a Tbilisi-based political analyst, said the decision to introduce the law likely came from Ivanishvili, who “takes more or less the same view as Mr. Putin: that these NGOs are puppets of the West.”

“Ivanishvili increasingly sees the West as an enemy that wants to drag Georgia into the war in Ukraine and replace the current Georgian government,” Nodia said. Ivanishvili sees NGOs and independent media as tools to achieve this, he said.

But protests this month showed Georgian Dream had miscalculated, analysts say.

Ruling politicians began rolling back the bill on Wednesday night as large crowds took to the streets, and Thursday’s discussion of the proposal was called off.

The EU delegation in Georgia welcomed the announcement of the withdrawal, as did Khatia Dekanoidze, a member of parliament for the pro-Western United National Movement party.

“Our children have succeeded,” she said.

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Litvinova reported from Tallinn, Estonia.