Georgia drops foreign agent bill but faces more protests

March 10, 2023 10:08 AM

Georgia was gearing up for fresh anti-government protests on Thursday as popular anger showed no signs of cooling in the pro-Western nation, despite the ruling party's promise to drop a "foreign agent" bill reminiscent of Russian legislation.

Concerns have been mounting that the Georgian government is flirting with the Kremlin and putting the Black Sea nation, which aspires to join the EU and NATO, on an authoritarian path.

Tensions in Georgia boiled over this week when lawmakers gave initial backing to a bill which is similar to Kremlin legislation used to silence critics. The vote triggered mass protests that saw Georgian police fire water cannon and tear gas at tens of thousands of demonstrators on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Georgian Dream ruling party said the bill had been "represented in a bad light" and promised public consultations after announcing its withdrawal on Thursday.

Undeterred, the opposition called for a fresh rally later on Thursday.

"As long as there are no guarantees that Georgia is firmly on a pro-Western course, 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 they said had been detained.

Many Georgians said they were prepared to take to the streets.

"The government is revoking the law because they saw our resolve, people's force. But the main problem remains in place -- they have proven that they are Russian stooges," Shota Kikaleishvili, a 19-year-old student, told AFP.

"They have all the reasons to be scared, we will force them out of power."

The EU and Washington have denounced plans to introduce a "foreign agent" law as a heavy blow to Georgia's democracy.

During the rallies, the protesters had carried EU and Georgian flags and chanted anti-Kremlin slogans, accusing the government of taking Georgia off a pro-Western track.


- 'We are Europeans' -

The protest venue outside parliament in central Tbilisi looked peaceful on Thursday afternoon, after a night of clashes between protesters and riot police.

But the legislature announced it will not be holding plenary sessions over the next few days "due to the damage inflicted by violent protesters to the parliament building and infrastructure".

The mood prevalent in the streets of the Georgian capital showed the government was unlikely to easily extinguish popular anger by merely calling off the controversial law.

"We are Europeans, Georgia belongs to the EU, the government which is dragging us back to Russia's orbit must resign," said Miranda Janashia, a 51-year-old museum conservator.

A European Union delegation in Georgia welcomed the government's announcement that it would halt plans to introduce the law, saying they "encourage all political leaders in Georgia to resume pro-EU reforms".

Washington has urged the government to show "restraint" and allow peaceful protests, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called for "democratic success" in "friendly Georgia".

The Kremlin said Thursday it was concerned by the mass protests in neighbouring Georgia.

Moscow and Tbilisi went to war in 2008 and Russia still controls Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, although the territories are recognised internationally as part of Georgia.

The interior ministry said more than 130 demonstrators were detained and 50 police officers injured during the two days of protests.

"Citizens were injured as well," the ministry said in a statement.

Georgia's investigators said they were probing 22 instances of law enforcement agents "allegedly using excessive force and injuring citizens, journalists and civil activists" during the police crackdown.


- 'Big moment' -

Tom de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, said both the bill and the crackdown represented a serious challenge in the politically turbulent country.

"It's a big moment for Georgia, still a democracy, but definitely a struggling one," he said on Twitter.

In Russia, the Kremlin has used the "foreign agent" label against opponents, journalists and human rights activists accused of leading foreign-funded political activities.

Georgian authorities have faced mounting international criticism over a perceived backsliding on democracy, seriously damaging Tbilisi's ties with Brussels.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Georgia has hosted an influx of anti-war Russians. But in recent weeks authorities have barred some Kremlin critics from entering the country, with observers warning of a drift towards Moscow.

Georgia's treatment of jailed ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili, whose health has drastically deteriorated in prison, has also drawn international condemnation.

The ruling party has insisted it remains committed to Georgia's EU and NATO membership bid enshrined in the constitution and supported -- according to opinion polls -- by at least 80 percent of the population.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has defended his "balanced" policy as aimed at ensuring "peace and stability".

Georgia applied for EU membership together with Ukraine and Moldova days after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, 2022.

Last June, EU leaders granted formal candidate status to Kyiv and Chisinau but said Tbilisi must implement reforms first.

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