Why are people protesting in Tbilisi, Georgia?  The “Foreign Agents” bill was explained

LONDON – After days of mass protests in Tbilisi, Georgia’s parliament on Friday voted against a controversial law that opponents said would lead to silencing free media and human rights defenders.

Politicians voted 35-1, without debate, against the “Foreign Agents” Act, which the ruling Georgian Dream party said would ensure “at least a minimum level of transparency and accountability” from nonprofits. Georgian Dream said Thursday it was withdrawing the Russian-inspired bill.

What are the demonstrations about?

People in Tbilisi, Georgia gather for a nighttime demonstration.

Demonstrators on Thursday in Tbilisi, Georgia. (David Mdzinarishvili/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Since Tuesday, when parliament passed the first reading of the bill, tens of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets of Tbilisi to protest the bill. Protesters said the law could allow the government to label critics “foreign agents”.

“It is important to oppose Russian law at this stage because we know how the dictatorship was formed in Russia and then in Belarus. With such laws, freedom completely disappeared,” student and human rights defender Nikusha Parulava told Yahoo News.

Parulava joined the protests the day they began and witnessed the country’s police turning on protesters. Water cannon and tear gas were used and it is estimated that over 100 people were arrested. “During the illegal arrests, the police and special forces beat the demonstrators,” Parulava said.

What is the bill about?

Police use tear gas to disperse protesters who have gathered on the streets of Tbilisi, Georgia.

Police used tear gas to disperse protesters during a rally against a bill on “foreign agents” on Thursday. (Herakli Gedenidze/Reuters)

The Georgian Dream party passed a bill earlier this week that would include two bills on “Foreign Influence Transparency” and “Foreign Agent Registration.” If passed, the laws would require non-governmental organizations such as the media and charities that receive more than 20% of their funding from foreign sources to register as “agents with foreign influence”. Failure to comply could result in fines and, in the worst case, imprisonment.

“Today is a dark day for Georgia’s democracy,” the US Embassy in Georgia said in a statement in response to the law’s first passage. “The pushing forward of these Kremlin-inspired laws by Parliament is incompatible with the clear desire of the Georgian people for European integration and its democratic development.”

The story goes on

It added: “Prosecuting these laws will damage Georgia’s relations with its strategic partners and undermine the important work of so many Georgian organizations committed to helping their fellow citizens.”

A woman with flags, including those of the USA, and a

A woman with flags, including those of the US, and a ‘We are Europe’ sign at a protest against the proposed law. (David Mdzinarishvili/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

After initial uproar, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili defended the law, saying: “The future of our country does not and will no longer belong to foreign agents or servants of foreign countries. The future of our country and our people belongs to the patriots.”

A similar law passed in Russia in 2012 began designating NGOs receiving funds from outside the country as “foreign agents.” In 2019, the bill was amended to target independent journalists and bloggers, and a year later expanded to include any individual in what Human Rights Watch called a move to “stifle civil society.”

“It’s very dangerous for me as a journalist,” local reporter Nastasia Arabuli told Yahoo News. “This law is a direct threat to me as I represent an independent media outlet that is entirely funded by the West. We [would] probably one of the first to be declared foreign spies under this law.”

Could it still become law?

The bill might not come into force at this time as the ruling party dropped it on Friday. However, nothing prevents the government from reintroducing it in the future. To prevent this, protesters continue to hold demonstrations in front of the Georgian parliament to ensure the bill is not received by lawmakers again and to demand the release of all those arrested during the protests.

A man with a cane walks past a burning police car near the Parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia.

A man walks past a burning police car near the Parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Thursday. (Zurab Zertsvadze/AP)

According to the Georgian Interior Ministry, 133 of those arrested on Tuesday and Wednesday had been freed by Friday morning.

“We’re angry,” Arabuli said when asked about the bill. “People are really angry and offended. Nobody wants another Russian law or a repressive regime in Georgia.”