May 22, 2024

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Georgia's Foreign Agents Bill Draws Protesters to the Streets

Georgia's Foreign Agents Bill Draws Protesters to the Streets
  • Written by Rehan Dimitri
  • BBC correspondent in the South Caucasus

Comment on the photo, Protests are now a daily sight in Tbilisi and show little sign of abating

For the past 10 days, thousands of Georgians – many in their late teens and early twenties – have brought traffic to a standstill in the capital, Tbilisi.

They are calling on the government to scrap its plans to introduce a controversial bill – dubbed the “foreign agent” law – which many say is inspired by neighboring authoritarian legislation used by Russia to crush dissent.

On April 17, Parliament passed the bill on its first reading, the first of three hurdles that must be overcome before it becomes law.

“I'm here for my European future,” says 23-year-old Gvantsa Bertsu, sitting with her friends next to the Georgian parliament, a meeting point for rallies.

She is among members of Georgia's Generation Z who marched through Tbilisi with EU and Georgian flags draped around their shoulders, holding signs and chanting “No to Russian law!”

Under the bill proposed by the ruling Georgian Dream party – which has been in power for 12 years – NGOs and independent media outlets that receive more than 20% of their funding from foreign donors would have to register themselves as organizations “bearing Georgia’s interests.” Foreign power.”

They will also be monitored by the Ministry of Justice and may have to share sensitive information – or face hefty fines of up to 25,000 Georgian lari ($9,400; £7,500).

Parallels have been drawn with an authoritarian draft law that took effect in Russia in 2012, which the Russian government has since used to marginalize voices challenging the Kremlin – including prominent cultural figures, media organizations and civil society groups.

Comment on the photo, Protesters are concerned that the bill will crush critical voices ahead of parliamentary elections later this year

Many also fear that such a law could derail Georgia's path toward much-desired European Union membership, which is supported by nearly 80% of Georgians – as a poll by the US National Democratic Institute showed.

Georgia was granted EU candidate status in December 2023 – but Brussels and Washington have now said adopting a foreign agents law would be detrimental to Georgia's European ambitions.

A number of European leaders warned that the proposed bill “contradicts” European norms and values, including European Council President Charles Michel, who said that the law “will move Georgia further away from the European Union than closer to it.”

But Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze stands firm.

He has accused NGOs of attempting to stage revolutions in Georgia twice, by promoting “gay propaganda” and attacking the Georgian Orthodox Church.

He and his government insist that the bill aims to ensure transparency, and reject the idea that it conflicts with European values ​​- or that Russia is behind the legislation.

Comment on the photo, Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze insists that the draft law aims to ensure transparency

Tamar Oniani, a representative of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, an NGO, expressed her doubts. She has been protesting the bill, which she says is aimed at “suppressing civil society” and “in Russia's interests.”

“This is why we are here,” she told the BBC on the sidelines of the protest. He added: “We believe that this is a foreign policy issue for Georgia, because it will shift us from the European Union to Russia.”

Anna Dolidze, of the opposition For the People party, says the law represents a Russian “test of loyalty” to the Georgian Dream party, whose mission is to “pass this law and remain quietly authoritarian… by indirectly silencing critics.”

Referring to similar legislation passed in Turkey, Azerbaijan and neighboring Kyrgyzstan, Ms. Dolidze says: “Pro-Russian countries in the so-called Russian neighborhood have been asked to pass this law… as a way to create a division between them and Europe.” “.

In Kyrgyzstan, the NGO Open Society Foundations recently said it would end its operations after three decades of presence in the country following the introduction of a foreign agents bill. The new law risks “a significant negative impact on civil society, human rights defenders and the media in Kyrgyzstan,” the NGO said in a statement.

For its part, Russia denied allegations of interference.

Analysts disagree. Pro-Kremlin Facebook pages are spreading claims that the West is behind the protests and promoting the narrative that the United States is “planning a coup” in Georgia ahead of the presidential election, says Sobo Jelava, a disinformation specialist at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab. Parliamentary elections in October.

“There are at least five pages I'm looking at now that contain a propaganda leaflet claiming that there is a secret plan to overthrow the government,” says Jelava.

Comment on the photo, European leaders warned that the proposed bill “contradicts” European norms and values

Protesters in Tbilisi have little doubt that this is a crossroads moment, and they continue to take to the streets to vent their anger towards the government. Protests are now a daily sight in Tbilisi, and show little sign of abating.

“Nine out of ten people on the street will say our destination is Europe,” says student Andrea Childs. “i don't know why [government officials] They do this.”

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili, who is locked in a bitter dispute with the government, told the BBC that questions remain about who might be behind her renewed push to adopt the law.

“Is it in Georgia or is it outside our borders? Was this decision made in Moscow?” she asked.

“This is the main question about transparency that Georgians are asking.”