Russia sees protests in Georgia as an attempted coup and accuses West of having fueled unrest

Hundreds of Georgians rallied outside parliament for a fourth day as lawmakers dropped controversial legislation on “foreign agents” that sparked violent clashes between police and protesters earlier this week.

The days-long demonstrations point to turmoil over the future in Georgia, which is aiming to join the EU and NATO, much to the frustration of Moscow, which invaded in 2008 and recognized two separatist areas in the country’s north.

“There is no doubt that the law on the registration of non-governmental organizations … was used as a pretext to launch an attempt to change the government by force in general,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a statement delivered to Russian news agencies.

The protests, he added, “are of course orchestrated from abroad” and aimed at creating “an appeal at Russia’s borders”.

The Kremlin has criticized statements by the US President of Georgia and accused a third party of stoking “anti-Russian” sentiment in the Black Sea state.

“We see where the President of Georgia is speaking to his people from,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

“Agents of Foreign Influence”

However, the mood was festive outside the parliament in the capital Tbilisi, where crowds of Georgians blew their whistles, waved their red and white flag and held up signs reading “We are Europe”.

Georgian lawmakers rejected the bill at a second reading after just one of 36 lawmakers backed the bill, which critics compared to Russian laws that put pressure on civil society.

“It’s a win. We won thanks to our unity,” said 21-year-old student Irina Shurgaia at a demonstration in front of parliament.

“The whole world has seen that Georgians are united in their determination to be part of the European family,” she told AFP.

Georgia, along with Ukraine and Moldova, applied for EU membership just days after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

EU leaders granted formal candidate status to Kiev and Chisinau last June but said Tbilisi must implement reforms first.

The leader of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Irakli Kobachidze, doubled down on the motivation behind the bill even after lawmakers rejected it.

“Being an agent is shameful, no matter whose agent you are,” he told journalists, calling Georgian NGOs “agents with foreign influence”.

“European Way”

His party caved under pressure from protesters on Thursday and announced it would drop the law after police used tear gas and water cannons against Georgians who took to the streets to express outrage at the proposed law.

But opposition parties said their protests would continue anyway, saying there were no guarantees “that Georgia is firmly on a pro-Western course”.

President Salome Zurabishvili sent a message of support to the protesters and congratulated them on their “first victory”.

“There is distrust of the government as we pursue our European path,” she said in a televised address from New York late Thursday.

The Kremlin said Moscow viewed the protests as a domestic problem in Georgia and said the divisive law in Georgia reflected US legislation, not Russia’s.

The European Union, France and the United States welcomed the Georgian government’s rejection of the bill, and the bloc urged the government to implement further reforms to gain candidate status.

The Georgian authorities are facing increasing international criticism over a perceived backslide to democracy that is seriously damaging Tbilisi’s relations with Brussels.

But the ruling party is committed to Georgia’s accession to the EU and NATO, which is enshrined in the constitution and, according to opinion polls, is supported by 80 percent of the population.