Protests are prompting Georgia to withdraw Russian-style ‘foreign agent’ law

TBILISI, Georgia — Tens of thousands of Georgians occupied the capital Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare for the second straight night on Wednesday, holding up EU flags and placards to protest a Russian-style draft law that would identify some non-state groups and media outlets. foreign agents.” The law is seen as an attempt to repress civil society and reinforce the Georgian government’s propaganda that Western partners are not acting in the interests of Georgians.

A man waves a Georgian flag in front of a burning barricade that keeps other protesters away, not far from the Georgian Parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Thursday. (Zurab Zertsvadze/AP)

Some demonstrators stormed the barricades in front of Parliament, overturned police cars and blocked the streets. Young people were seen dancing and singing in front of riot police.

Authorities used water cannons and tear gas against demonstrators, many of whom they also arrested. Despite attempts to clear the streets, protesters were back by dawn.

After the backlash, the government on Thursday decided to withdraw the controversial bill, stating: “When the emotional background subsides, we will better explain to the public what the bill was intended for and why it was important to increase transparency on foreign influence in our country.” guarantee. ” The protests are said to continue for a third night.

A powerful jet from a water cannon drenches protesters holding an EU flag, which features a circle of 12 stars on a blue background.

Police used a water cannon to disperse protesters with an EU flag in front of the parliament in Tbilisi on Tuesday. (Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

At the heart of the controversy is the Georgian parliament’s proposal for two bills that would require NGOs and media organizations to register as “agents with foreign influence” if 20% of their funds come from abroad. Failure to comply will result in fines. The second “Foreign Agents” Act also covered natural and legal persons with more severe penalties, including imprisonment.

Russia, which has a similar law, figures prominently in the debate. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, a small mountainous country of about 3.7 million people, and established breakaway republics loyal to Moscow in southern Abkhazia and Ossetia. It was a tactic that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin would repeat years later in Ukraine.

A group of protesters hold a metal barricade against closed lines of police officers wearing clear shields and face shields.

Demonstrators clashed with police in front of the parliament in Tbilisi on Wednesday. (David Mdzinarishvili/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The Georgian government has capitalized on Georgians’ fear of another armed conflict with their stronger neighbor. The ruling party, which portrays Ukraine as abandoned by the West, is touting itself as a pragmatic course to avoid leading Georgia down the same path.

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Despite national and international calls not to pass the law, the Georgian Dream Party, which controls the government, passed the law in its first hearing on Tuesday as citizens protested outside parliament.

“The future of our country does not and will no longer belong to foreign agents or servants of foreign countries,” Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said on Tuesday, defending the legislation. “The future of our country and our people belongs to patriots. ”

Demonstrators gather in front of the illuminated colonnades of Parliament.

Demonstrators wave Georgian, Ukrainian and European flags outside Parliament on Wednesday. (Vano Shlamov/AFP via Getty Images)

Georgians are not backing down, and many critics argue the laws are diverting the country from its post-Soviet leanings toward liberal democracy and the EU.

“This protest is not just about laws,” Vasil Matitaishvili, campaign manager for opposition European Georgia party, told Yahoo News. (Disclosure: The author of this article is the stepdaughter of the party founder.) “It is about the choice of every generation of Georgians and our identity. Western civilization, the free world, is our home. This Putin-inspired law is an ugly finale to this government’s dogged years-long road.”

The US was similarly blunt. The US embassy in Tbilisi called the law “a dark day for Georgia’s democracy”.

Demonstrators hold placards that read: We are Europe.

Demonstrators hold up placards at a demonstration in Tbilisi on Wednesday. (Vano Shlamov/AFP via Getty Images)

In a statement, the US embassy said the “Kremlin-inspired laws” are “incompatible with the clear desire of the Georgian people for European integration and its democratic development.” Persecution of these laws will damage Georgia’s relations with its strategic partners and undermine the important work of so many Georgian organizations working on behalf of their fellow citizens. The process and the draft legislation raise real questions about the ruling party’s commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration.”

The ruling Georgian Dream party came to power in 2012 on a promise to normalize relations with Russia and openly stated in its election manifesto that Georgia should not serve as a point of confrontation between the West and Russia.

Bidzina Ivanishvili, the Georgian oligarch, party leader and then prime minister, pursued a policy of strategic ambiguity: she supported EU membership while avoiding angering Moscow. Meanwhile, the party shut down independent media and arrested political opponents.

Bidzina Ivanishvili raises his fist in the air, as do his supporters.

Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the ruling Georgian Dream party, celebrates the results of the exit poll after the parliamentary elections in Tbilisi, October 31, 2020. (Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

However, the government’s balancing act seems to have stalled. Last year, the EU gave Ukraine and Moldova official candidate status, but said Tbilisi needed to implement a number of reforms first.

In a statement this week, the EU diplomatic mission called the proposed laws “a very bad development for Georgia and its people”.

She added: “The European Union urges Georgia to maintain its commitment to promoting democracy, the rule of law and human rights, and recalls people’s right to protest peacefully.”