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Georgia’s ruling party withdraws ‘foreign agents’ bill after two nights of protest

Opponents said the bill represented a Russian-inspired authoritarian shift that imperiled hopes of the country’s joining the European Union.
/ Source: Reuters

Georgia’s ruling party said Thursday it was dropping a bill on “foreign agents” after two nights of violent protests against what opponents said was a Russian-inspired authoritarian shift that imperiled hopes of the country joining the European Union.

The Georgian Dream ruling party said in a statement it would “unconditionally withdraw the bill we supported, without any reservations.” It cited the need to reduce “confrontation” in society, while also denouncing “lies” told about the bill by the “radical opposition.”

However, opposition leaders said the protests would resume later Thursday. Giga Lemonjava, a representative of the Droa party, said they were demanding that the government formally denounce the bill and release all those detained during the protests.

The Black Sea country of 3.7 million people has seen frequent political upheaval since winning independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, including a peaceful “Rose Revolution” in 2003 and a calamitous war against Russia five years later.

The bill would have required Georgian organizations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents” or face fines.

Government officials said the proposals were necessary to root out “foreign influence” and “spies” from Georgia’s political scene, arguing that Georgians had the right to know who funds non-government organizations working there.

The opposition said it was a local version of a Russian law that President Vladimir Putin has used to crush dissent for more than a decade.

Georgian police fired water cannon and tear gas at thousands of protesters Wednesday, ordering them to disperse as they rallied against a planned "foreign agent" law reminiscent of Russian legislation used to silence critics.
Protesters are sprayed by a water cannon in clashes with riot police near the Georgian Parliament in Tblisi on Wednesday night. Zurab Tsertsvadze / AFP - Getty Images

“It was a Russian law that had to be recalled and should not have gone through parliament under any conditions,” said Nika Oboladze, a 32-year-old Tblisi resident.

“Those who proposed the law are responsible for all this mess. Because 90% of Georgians support European integration and nothing should stop that,” he added.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was “concerned” by events in Tblisi and said that the Georgian bill bore no relation to Russian laws.

“The Kremlin didn’t inspire anything there, the Kremlin has absolutely nothing to do with it. ... If I understand it correctly, one version was very similar to an equivalent law in the United States,” Peskov said.

The European Union’s delegation to Georgia welcomed the decision to withdraw the bill, writing on Twitter: “We encourage all political leaders in Georgia to resume pro-EU reforms, in an inclusive & constructive way.”

Parliament gave the draft law initial approval on Tuesday, but tens of thousands of protesters then gathered outside parliament, some throwing petrol bombs, stones and plastic bottles at police. The authorities said dozens were detained.

Police used tear gas, water cannon and stun grenades to break up a second night of protests on Wednesday.

The bill has deepened a rift between Georgian Dream, which has a parliamentary majority, and President Salome Zourabichvili, a pro-European who has moved away from the party since being elected with its support in 2018.

Zourabichvili had said she would veto the bill, though parliament can override her.

Georgia’s opposition has long criticized Georgian Dream for what it sees as excessive closeness to Moscow. Anti-Russian feeling runs high in Georgia over Moscow’s backing for separatists in two breakaway regions, which led to a short war between the two countries in 2008.

The bill had angered supporters of Georgian membership of the EU, after officials in Brussels condemned the draft law and said it would complicate Tbilisi’s path to joining the bloc.

Opinion polls show a consistent majority of Georgians in favor of joining the European Union and NATO. All major parties, including Georgian Dream, support the idea.

Last year, Brussels declined to grant Georgia E.U. candidate status alongside Moldova and Ukraine, citing stalled political and judicial reforms.