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With historic ties to Russia but looking to the West, could Georgia be the next Ukraine?

Protests rocked the Black Sea country of 3.7 million after the government tried to introduce a bill that fueled fears of Kremlin influence.
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The former Soviet state of Georgia is caught between its historic ties to the East and a future that may lie closer to the West. Its government, viewed by critics as too friendly with the Kremlin, has been rocked by mass protests in the capital.

Parliament on Friday voted to drop a bill that fueled fears of Russian influence and comparisons to Ukraine, after tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Tbilisi to rally against the legislation they saw as a threat to the country’s democratic freedoms and a barrier to any future hopes of joining NATO and the European Union

NBC News takes a look at what we know so far.

What sparked the protests?

The massive and energetic protests in Tbilisi last week began after the ruling Georgian Dream party introduced a bill on foreign influence that passed its first of two readings on the Parliament floor. 

The bill would have obliged media outlets, nongovernmental organizations and even individuals to register with the state as foreign agents if they receive more than 20% of their annual income from foreign entities. 

Protesters wave the Georgian, Ukrainian and European flags outside Georgia's Parliament in Tbilisi on March 8, 2023.
Protesters wave the Georgian, Ukrainian and European flags Wednesday outside Georgia's Parliament in Tbilisi.Vano Shlamov / AFP - Getty Images

The ruling party claimed it was necessary for national security, and the bill’s authors said it was modeled on the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, which the U.S. enacted to expose Nazi propaganda; it requires people to disclose when they lobby in the U.S. on behalf of foreign governments or political entities.

Critics called the proposal a “Russian law” and warned it could be used to curtail media freedoms and stifle dissent. 

Opposition lawmaker Salome Samadashvili told NBC News on Thursday that it was similar to a law enacted by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2012 that has been used to shut down or discredit organizations that criticize the government. 

There, she said, it was used “to suppress the democratic opposition — NGOs, journalists and basically everyone who had any financial or political independence. … That is why we call it the ‘Russian law.’”

After it was introduced and voted on swiftly by Georgian Dream, which holds a sizable majority in Parliament, tens of thousands of protesters swarmed the capital and rallied outside the Parliament building for several days, undeterred even after they were met with tear gas and water cannons.

What did the government do? 

With the protests showing little sign of abating, lawmakers in the Black Sea nation of 3.7 million began to back away from the bill Wednesday evening, and a discussion about the proposal was canceled Thursday.

But the demonstrations continued into Friday morning, with protesters calling for the bill to be abandoned entirely. 

And in a session that lasted minutes, Parliament obliged as its members voted to drop the bill Friday after Georgian Dream said it would withdraw the legislation.    

Where does Ukraine come in?

In the years leading up to Putin’s fateful decision to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine last  February, the Kremlin liberally used its foreign agent law to suppress what remained of the political opposition and the independent media in Russia. 

“The war in Ukraine has made this even clearer,” Ana Tsitlidze, a Georgian opposition MP, said in an interview. “With this law, the government is trying to do the same thing that Putin did in Russia: kill free speech and nongovernmental organizations.”

A man waves a Georgian flag in front of a burning barricade as other protesters stand behind not far from the parliament building in Tbilisi on March 9, 2023.
A protester waves a Georgian flag in front of a burning barricade early Thursday. Zurab Tsertsvadze / AP

Georgia, one of the most pro-Western states, has for more than a decade now pursued a publicly stated goal of joining the E.U. and NATO. 

Like Ukraine, it is a former Soviet republic and has had its own history of war with Russia this century. 

In August 2008, Georgia attempted to recapture the Russia-backed breakaway republic of South Ossetia, which had fought a separatist war with Tbilisi in the 1990s. Moscow responded with a massive invasion and regained control of South Ossetia, while also seizing another breakaway Georgian province, Abkhazia, and it continues to support separatist movements in both the regions, although they are internationally recognized as Georgian territory.

In recent years, however, political figures more sympathetic to Moscow than Georgia’s typically pro-Western mainstream have come into power, while opposition parties have also accused Georgian Dream of pursuing pro-Kremlin policies while claiming to be Western oriented.

Opponents have also charged that the party’s founder, former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire who amassed his fortune in Russia, calls the shots even though he doesn’t hold a government job.

The party has repeatedly denied any links to Russia or accusations that it leans toward Moscow.

“Right now, Russia is testing Georgia,” Samadashvili said. “It is testing Georgia to see how far it can go through the government that runs this country. So we do not believe that this bill was written in Georgia, or that this plan to have this bill passed was something that the Georgian government came up with on its own.”

For its part, Moscow has distanced itself from the Georgian legislation

“Russia has nothing to do with this, neither in essence nor in form,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a news conference Friday. “We do not interfere in internal Georgian affairs.”

What does it mean for Georgia’s future?

The protests in Tbilisi this week have been compared by some to the 2013 Maidan movement in Ukraine, which resulted in the ousting of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. 

There were visual similarities, such as protesters carrying E.U. flags, and Ukrainian flags, and many of those who took to the streets in Georgia were young, born after the fall of the Soviet Union. Authorities also responded in a similar manner, with tear gas and water cannons.   

Police in riot gear face protesters in Tbilisi late on March 8, 2023.
Police in riot gear face protesters in Tbilisi on Wednesday night.Zura Tsertsvadze / AFP - Getty Images

“Young people who grew up in this miraculous free country are now protecting Georgia’s European choice at the cost of their lives,” said Ana Tsitlidze, an opposition MP who took part in the demonstrations. 

However, the E.U. agreed to make Ukraine and Moldova candidates for membership of the bloc in June, but held back on doing the same for Georgia, citing the need for reforms. 

Some protesters like Tsitlidze also feared that the government would try to enact similar legislation in the future. 

“This is not the end,” she said. “We still have a pro-Russian government. They can bring this law back, or any other laws, at any time.”