Participants march during a protest against a draft law on “foreign agents”, which critics say represents an authoritarian shift and could hurt Georgia’s bid to join the European Union, in Tbilisi, Georgia, March 8, 2023. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze
By Felix Light
TBILISI (Reuters) -Georgia’s ruling party said on Thursday it was withdrawing a bill on “foreign agents” after two nights of violent protests against what opponents called a Russian-inspired authoritarian shift that imperilled hopes Georgia joining the European Union.
The Georgian Dream party said in a statement it would “unconditionally withdraw the bill we supported, without any reservations”. It cited the need to reduce “confrontation” in society, while denouncing “lies” about the bill spread by the “radical opposition”.
Protests, however, resumed at around 7 p.m. (1500 GMT). Giga Lemonjava, a representative of the Droa party, said protesters wanted the government to formally denounce the bill and ensure the release all those detained in the demonstrations.
The Black Sea country of 3.7 million people has seen frequent political upheaval since winning independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, including a peaceful “Rose Revolution” in 2003 and a calamitous war against Russia five years later.
The bill would have required Georgian organisations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents” or face fines.
Government officials said the proposals were necessary to root out “foreign influence” and “spies”, arguing that Georgians had the right to know who funds non-government organisations working there.
‘RUSSIAN’ LAW, OPPONENTS SAY
Opponents described the bill as a local version of a law that Russian President Vladimir Putin has used to crush dissent for more than a decade.
“It was a Russian law that had to be recalled and should not have gone through parliament under any conditions”, said Nika Oboladze, 32.
“Those who proposed the law are responsible for all this mess. Because 90% of Georgians support European integration and nothing should stop that.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was “concerned” by events in Tbilisi, and said that the Georgian bill bore no relation to Russian laws.
“The Kremlin didn’t inspire anything there, the Kremlin has absolutely nothing to do with it. … If I understand it correctly, one version was very similar to an equivalent law in the United States,” Peskov said.
The Georgia ruling party has said the bill was modelled on the U.S. 1938 “Foreign Agents Registration Act”, which primarily covers lobbyists and organisations directly working for or under the control of foreign governments.
The European Union’s delegation to Georgia welcomed the decision to withdraw the bill.
“We encourage all political leaders in Georgia to resume pro-EU reforms, in an inclusive & constructive way,” it said on Twitter.
Parliament gave the draft law initial approval on Tuesday, but tens of thousands of protesters then gathered outside parliament, some throwing petrol bombs, stones and plastic bottles at police. The authorities said dozens were detained.
Police used tear gas, water cannon and stun grenades to break up a second night of protests on Wednesday.
The interior ministry said all the protesters detained for non-criminal offences had been freed.
It said some of the detainees appeared in court while the rest were released after their pre-trial detention term expired.
The bill has deepened a rift between Georgian Dream, which has a parliamentary majority, and President Salome Zourabichvili, a pro-European who has moved away from the party since being elected with its support in 2018.
Zourabichvili had said she would veto the bill, though parliament can override her.
“I want to congratulate the whole of society on this first victory of its kind. I welcome these correct steps taken by the government – the fact that they announced the withdrawal of this draft law,” Zourabichvili said on her Facebook (NASDAQ:META) page.
Georgia’s opposition has long criticised Georgian Dream for what it sees as excessive closeness to Moscow. Anti-Russian feeling runs high in Georgia over Moscow’s backing for separatists in two breakaway regions, which led to a short war between the two countries in 2008.
The bill had angered supporters of Georgian membership of the EU, after officials in Brussels condemned the draft law and said it would complicate Tbilisi’s path to joining the bloc.
Opinion polls show a consistent majority of Georgians in favour of joining the European Union and NATO. All major parties, including Georgian Dream, support the idea.
Last year, Brussels declined to grant Georgia EU candidate status alongside Moldova and Ukraine, citing stalled political and judicial reforms.