Mass street protests stretched into a third night in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi despite the ruling party’s decision earlier in the day to meet protesters’ demand and reverse a bill critics say would limit freedoms.
Protests began on Tuesday after the ruling Georgian Dream party passed the initial reading of the bill that would require nongovernmental groups and independent media outlets to register as “agents of foreign influence.”
Tens of thousands of protesters who opposed the bill clashed with law enforcement outside Tbilisi’s Parliament building on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Critics of the bill have likened it to draconian legislation the Kremlin has used to shut down many prominent human rights organizations in Russia, as well as to target journalists and activists.
Many worried that the bill would threaten the country’s chances of joining the European Union, and it also fueled fears that the government is sliding back into Moscow’s orbit. Georgian Dream said the decision to withdraw the bill was made to maintain “peace.”
Protesters initially welcomed the news of the government’s decision to pull the bill but said they remained cautious and alert in case of another reversal.
“This is definitely a positive thing that the government changed their mind. It is just unfortunate that this had to happen through the demonstration of power,” said Vakho Pavlenishvili, a protester. “Now it is very important to follow up on this progress and change the way this government approaches people. The government must see that this is a democratic state, and they have to consider what their people think.”
Another protester, Levan Ghambashidze, said distrust in the government remains high.
“We have had promises several times from this government — on elections and other political issues — and they have not fulfilled them. So, right now we are wondering if this is a trick,” he said. “It is possible they are waiting for the protests to cool down and they will try to introduce this law again.”
In 2021, Georgian Dream withdrew from an E.U.-brokered agreement that sought to end the political deadlock in the country, drawing ire from Georgians and Western officials alike. In an apparent attempt to ease protesters’ concerns late Thursday, the government moved the second reading of the bill — originally scheduled for later this month — to Friday, and announced they would release all detainees arrested during the protests.
Georgian Dream also blasted its critics, saying the bill was presented in a “negative light” to mislead the public by likening it to the Russian law. The party said it would organize meetings to explain the rationale behind the bill once the tension had died down. It also added that the demonstrators indulged in “illegal” acts, referring to the violence in this week’s protests.
The E.U. delegation in Georgia welcomed the announcement of the bill’s withdrawal. “We encourage all political leaders in GE [Georgia] to resume pro-EU reforms, in an inclusive & constructive way and in line with the 12 priorities for Georgia to achieve candidate status,” the bloc said in a tweet Thursday.
The government, led by Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili of the Dream party, has routinely clashed with Western officials who have expressed concern over the country’s democratic backsliding. Many in Georgia’s opposition believe that the ruling party is increasingly aligning itself with Moscow and that the foreign influence bill is the latest indication of that.
In comments Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted that “nothing was inspired by the Kremlin” and that Russia had no role in the unrest.
The United States and European nations had urged the country to withdraw the proposed law for being incompatible with democratic values and norms. Georgia’s president, Salome Zurabishvili, also opposed the bill and said she would veto it.
The legislation, which cleared an initial vote Tuesday, would require all nongovernmental organizations and media groups that derive more than 20 percent of their revenue from abroad to register with the government as “agents of foreign influence,” subjecting them to additional scrutiny and opening them up to the possibility of harsh penalties.
Tens of thousands rally in Tbilisi demanding the withdrawal of the Russia-style 'foreign agents' law' and the release of those detained during the last night's crackdown on yesterday's rally pic.twitter.com/6pJahAk7Uu— Formula NEWS | English (@FormulaGe) March 8, 2023
Videos filmed during the three nights of protests showed tens of thousands of demonstrators chanting, “No to the Russian law!” and “We are Europe!”, with many in the crowd waving E.U., Georgian and Ukrainian flags.
More than 100 people were arrested, the Georgian Interior Ministry said Thursday, saying that the protesters smashed shop windows and set fire to bins on the road. Police used water cannons and tear gas to disperse protesters, images showed. Human Rights Watch said it saw no reason for the use of force against “peaceful” protesters.
Figures from opposition parties, speaking after the bill was withdrawn, said protests would continue until the government had formally renounced the bill altogether.
Speaking to The Post, Georgian author and president of PEN Georgia, Iva Pezuashvili, said that the protesters had “won a small battle” but that “nothing was over yet.”
“The main goal for Georgians is joining the European Union, and unfortunately our government, with bills like this foreign agent law, are trying to destroy our European future,” Pezuashvili said.
A recent poll shows that a majority of the country supports joining the European Union, but the application it initiated last year remains stuck. Georgia was asked to pursue political reforms for it to be granted candidate status.