Georgia Backs Down on Controversial Foreign Agent Bill Amid Protests
Georgia’s ruling party backtracked on plans to introduce a “foreign agent” law similar to Russia’s while the opposition vowed to escalate protests.
Concern is growing that the former Soviet country, which aspires to join the European Union and NATO, is taking an authoritarian turn and maintaining its ties with Moscow.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Georgia has hosted an influx of anti-war Russians. But in recent weeks, authorities have banned some Kremlin critics from entering the country and accused them of bowing to Moscow.
The plans for the “foreign agent” law – reminiscent of Kremlin legislation used to silence critics – sparked mass protests that saw Georgian police fire water cannon and tear gas on thousands of demonstrators.
The ruling Georgian Dream party said the bill was “poorly presented” and promised public consultations after announcing its withdrawal.
The move came in the wake of mass protests in the capital, Tbilisi, on Tuesday and Wednesday, during which police clashed with protesters.
Undeterred, the opposition called for a new rally later Thursday.
“As long as there are no guarantees that Georgia is firmly on a pro-Western path, these processes will not stop,” a group of opposition parties said in a joint statement.
They also demanded the immediate release of dozens of protesters, who they say have been detained.
The demonstrators raised the flags of the European Union and Ukraine, chanted anti-Kremlin slogans and accused the government of distancing Georgia from the pro-Western path.
Azza Akhvlediani, 72, who protested on Wednesday, said the Georgian government wanted to emulate its Russian counterpart.
“I know what’s going on in Moscow. They stop every passer-by and do whatever they like,” she said.
“I think the Georgian government wants the same thing.”
An EU delegation in Georgia welcomed the government’s announcement to halt plans to introduce the law, saying they “encourage all political leaders in Georgia to resume pro-EU reforms”.
Washington urged the government to show “restraint” and allow peaceful protests, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for “democratic success” in “friendly Georgia”.
The Kremlin said on Thursday that it was concerned about the mass protests in Georgia.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, “This is a neighboring country and although we do not have relations with Georgia as such, the situation there cannot but worry us.”
Moscow and Tbilisi went to war in 2008 and Russia still controls Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, despite the territory’s international recognition as part of Georgia.
On Wednesday, Georgian police fired water cannon and tear gas at thousands of protesters, ordering them to disperse in the wake of similar clashes on Tuesday.
Police said more than 70 protesters were arrested and 50 officers were injured during the protests on Tuesday.
Tom de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, said the bill and campaign presented a serious challenge in the politically volatile country.
“Big moment for Georgia, it’s still a democracy, but definitely a struggling democracy,” he said on Twitter.
In Russia, the “foreign agent” label has been used by the Kremlin against dissidents, journalists and human rights activists accused of leading foreign-financed political activities.
The Georgian authorities have faced mounting international criticism over what is believed to be a backsliding on democracy, which has seriously damaged Tbilisi’s relations with Brussels.
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili defended his “balanced” policy as aimed at ensuring “peace and stability”.
Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili expressed support for the protesters and vowed to veto the legislation.
Georgia applied for EU membership along with Ukraine and Moldova days after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
In June, EU leaders granted official candidate status to Kiev and Chisinau but said Tbilisi must implement reforms first.
Plans to join NATO and the European Union are spelled out in Georgia’s constitution and have the support of at least 80 percent of the population, according to opinion polls.
Georgia’s treatment of imprisoned former president Mikheil Saakashvili, whose health has deteriorated dramatically in prison, has also drawn international condemnation.
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