Georgians take to the streets as parliament considers new ‘foreign agent’ bill

Screenshot from video report by Kanal 13, covering the March 6 protests staged outside the parliament building in Tbilisi.

Thousands of Georgians took to the streets on March 6, 7, and 8 to protest what civil society describes as Georgia's very own “foreign agent” law. The parliament resumed the discussion over the two versions of the draft bill despite mounting criticism on March 6. After three days of mass protests, the ruling government of Georgian Dream announced they would rescind the bill, in a major victory for civil society workers and protestors.

Days of debate and protest

As people gathered outside the building on the morning of March 6, inside the parliament, at least three opposition parliament members (MPs) were forcibly removed from the committee session, according to reporting by Fist fights between MPs were also reported by local and international media.

Other opposition MPs were seen hanging EU, NATO, and Georgia's state flags from the window of the parliament building, symbolizing the opposition party's European aspirations.

Protesters who gathered outside parliament reportedly threw eggs at the building in protest.

Opposition parties vowed to continue protests until the parliament stopped discussing the bill. Joining the party were some 60 media platforms and hundreds of civil society organizations.

The proposed bill “on transparency of foreign influence,” was similar to Russia's 2012 “foreign agent” law, which has been used to crush dissent and opposition in Russia since it came into force. It was proposed by a group of parliament members, formally from the ruling Georgian Dream who quit the party ranks last year and formed their own political party called People's Power in August 2022. If approved, the bill was going to “compel foreign-funded non-governmental organizations to register as foreign influence agents,” reported Eurasianet.

There were two versions of the bill. Both were proposed and submitted by the People's Power, backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party. According to reports, the second draft, “On Registration of Foreign Agents,” was “more severe,” and extended the registration requirements “from organizations to individuals and increases the penalties for the failure to fulfill its requirements from fines to five years in prison,” reported The first draft required all non-governmental organizations and media outlets in Georgia receiving more than 20 percent of foreign funding to register as “foreign agents” and report on their annual income.

On March 7, the parliament approved both versions.

The government was then, going to send the bill to the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe, which issues recommendations on whether submitted “legislation is compatible with democratic and human rights norms.” Already there were signs that the government won't take the recommendations into account. On March 7, the chair of the ruling Georgian Dream party Mamuka Mdinaradze said the party would only follow the commission’s recommendations “if there is at least something rational written there.” Mdinaradze also said it is likely the parliament will approve the first draft of the bill.

Meanwhile, the ruling party went after critics of the bill, calling them “detractors of the church,” and “spies.” According to OC Media, a number of pages emerged on Facebook targeting critics of the bill with similar language. Posters plastered across the city shared the same message:

Supporters of the bill rejected these criticisms, claiming the bill would “improve transparency.” However, critics said it was unnecessary, given information on organizations’ ownership was publicly available anyway and that there was full access to the financial records of these organizations.

Calls to rescind the bill

The Committee to Protect Journalists released a statement on March 1, saying, “Georgia's parliament should reject any legislation that would brand media as foreign agents, and its government should take concrete steps to demonstrate a commitment to media diversity.”

Others chimed in making similar calls. From European Parliament members to Georgia's prominent football club and the country's winemakers:

Dinamo Tbilisi, a national football club, released a statement via their Facebook page:

Georgian winemakers also chimed in, according to reporting

In a joint statement issued by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the watchdogs called on the parliament to drop the law. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell described the parliament's decision to adopt the draft bill in the first reading as “very bad development for Georgia and its people.” Adding:

The law in its current form risks having a chilling effect on civil society and media organisations, with negative consequences for the many Georgians benefiting from their work. This law is incompatible with EU values and standards. It goes against Georgia’s stated objective of joining the European Union, as supported by a large majority of Georgian citizens. Its final adoption may have serious repercussions on our relations.

In his regular press briefing,  US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said on March 7, “this draft law would strike at some of the very rights that are central to the aspirations of the people of Georgia for a consolidated democracy, for Euro Atlantic integration and for a brighter future.” Price also mentioned the possibility of sanctions imposed against the Government of Georgia, “we have a number of tools within our purview that would allow us to hold accountable anyone in any country around the world who is responsible for the suppression of what would otherwise be a universal human right.”

The public anger escalated on March 7, as lawmakers voted 76–13 in the first reading of draft legislation. Footage of police using water canons and reports of tear gas were widely shared on social media.

The protests continued on March 8.

And amid the chaos, there were also moments like this, captured on camera and shared on social media:

President Salome Zurabishvili, who is in the United States on an official visit, said she will veto the bill and supported the protesters’ demands.

Over 100 people were arrested during the protests. Yet, the government stuck to the divisive language even after announcing its decision to withdraw the bill. In a statement the ruling Georgian Dream party said, “the machine of lies managed to present the law in the wrong light and misled part of the population. And radical forces managed to drag the part of youth into illegal actions.” They also described the law enforcement, which used tear gas and water canons against protestors as “heroic.”

Georgians disagree. There are plans to continue the protests until the government guarantees that it is back on track towards its pro-Western course. There is also lack of trust in the government. In July 2021, the ruling party announced its decision to withdraw from the April 2021, agreement brokered with the mediation efforts from the US and the EU, and signed between the ruling Georgian Dream Party and most opposition parties promising several judicial and electoral reforms and a promise by the Georgian Dream party to hold a new parliamentary election in October 2021. Since then, the ruling party has resorted to divisive rhetoric against pro-democracy and pro-EU aspirations while tensions with Western allies continued to grow.

Meanwhile, the Delegation of the European Union to Georgia said it “welcomed” the move and “encouraged all political leaders in Georgia to resume pro-EU reforms, in an inclusive & constructive way and in line with the 12 priorities for Georgia to achieve candidate status.”

Those conditions include reducing the political polarization, reforming the judiciary, ensuring functioning state institutions, strengthening of anti-corruption measures, including de-oligarchisation, and others.

The ruling government announced its plan to apply for the EU membership in March 2022, following Russia's invasion of Ukrainian — one day after Ukraine made its formal application. At the time, the move was described as a U-turn for the ruling Georgian Dream Party, which up until recently insisted it would not accelerate its initial timeline of applying for membership in 2024.

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