Georgia withdraws 'foreign influence' bill that sparked protests
Georgia’s ruling party has withdrawn a controversial “foreign influence” bill after two nights of protests in Tbilisi, but the opposition warned that more demonstrations were planned on Thursday.
The announcement that the bill would be scrapped, carried by the country’s public broadcaster, was made hours after tens of thousands of people gathered outside the Georgian parliament for a second night of rallies, some clashing with police.
The Executive Secretary of the Droa opposition party, Giga Lemonjala, said his party “did not believe” the ruling Georgian Dream party would withdraw the legislation, “because we have very sad experience that Georgian Dream has lied to the Georgian public several times.”
Lemonjala is demanding parliament formally cancels the bill and immediately release all those detained during the protests, which saw tens of thousands gather outside the country’s parliament over a fear it would drive a wedge between Georgia and Europe.
Protesters have been seen waving the flag of the European Union – which Georgia applied to join last year – and those of the United States and Ukraine, as well as the Georgian flag.
The controversial legislation would have required organizations receiving 20% or more of their annual income from abroad to register as “foreign agents” or face heavy fines – a proposal that rights experts warn will pose a chilling effect to civil society in the country and damage its democracy.
Meanwhile, Moscow on Thursday expressed concern over the situation and urged Russian nationals to exercise caution. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Thursday advised Russian nationals staying in neighboring countries to remain vigilant.
Asked on a press briefing if the Russian law had inspired the Georgian bill, Peskov said the Kremlin has “nothing to do with this” and pointed to legislation against so-called foreign agents in the US.
Critics said it resembled similar laws used by Russia to stifle dissent and political opposition and the announcement to shelve the bill was welcomed by the European Union’s office in the former Soviet Republic.
“We encourage all political leaders in GE (Georgia) to resume pro-EU reforms, in an inclusive & constructive way,” the office wrote on its official Twitter account.
Social media videos from Wednesday night showed some protesters throwing stones at the building’s windows and attempting to break a protective barrier, with police deploying water cannon and tear gas.
The Georgian Interior Ministry said it had arrested a further 66 people for their involvement in the protests.
“The participants of the rally violated the public order and law and order throughout the night at different locations and resisted the police officers,” the statement read.
The announcement brings the total number of people arrested in connection to the protests, which took place on Tuesday and Wednesday, to 142.
Georgia’s parliament were discussing two bills, according to Giorgi Gogia, associate director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.
The first bill would have required organizations including non-governmental groups and print, online and broadcast media to register as “foreign agents” if they receive 20 percent or more of their annual income from abroad.
The second expanded the scope of “agents of foreign influence” to include individuals and increases the penalties for failure to comply from fines to up to five years in prison.
Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party said Wednesday that the laws would help root out those working against the interests of the country and the powerful Georgian Orthodox Church, Reuters reported.
He criticised Georgia’s “radical opposition” for stirring up protesters.
But Gogia said the the bills were a clear threat to human rights in Georgia.
“They threaten to marginalize and discredit critical voices in the country. This threat is real,” he said. “Under the disguise of transparency, the latest statements by the Georgian authorities strongly suggest that if adopted, the law will be weaponized to further stigmatize and penalize independent groups, media and critical voices in the country.”
Russia-aligned Belarus has had a citizenship law in place since 2002 that has a similar impact.
In December 2022, the Belarusian parliament passed amendments to the law which would enable the government to target members of the political opposition, activists and other critics in exile, according to Human Rights Watch.
The draft law would allow the president to strip Belarusians abroad of their citizenship, even if they have no other.
Georgia, which won its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, has long played a delicate balancing act between its citizens’ pro-European sentiment and the geopolitical aims of its powerful neighbor, Russia.
A Tuesday statement from the EU warned that the law would be “incompatible with EU values and standards” and could have “serious repercussions” on the group’s relations with Georgia.
Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili said she believed that the bill “looks very much like Russian politics” and vowed to veto it.
“There is no need for this law, it comes from nowhere. Nobody has asked for it,” Zourabichvili told CNN’s Isa Soares Wednesday.
Zourabichvili had vowed to veto the bill, but supreme executive power lies with the government headed by Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili.
Georgia applied for EU membership in March 2022. Though it was not granted candidacy status, the European Council has expressed readiness to grant that status if Georgia implements certain reforms.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price on Wednesday said the bill was “Kremlin-inspired.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meanwhile addressed Georgian protesters directly, thanking them on Wednesday for raising his country’s flag during the demonstrations and wishing them “democratic success.”
“I want to thank everyone who has been holding Ukrainian flags in the squares and streets of Georgia these days,” Zelensky said.