Georgia withdraws ‘foreign influence’ bill that sparked angry protests

Georgia withdraws ‘foreign influence’ bill that sparked angry protests

(CNN) Georgia’s ruling party has announced it will withdraw a controversial “foreign influence” bill after two nights of widespread protests in Tbilisi over fears it would drive a wedge between the Caucasian nation and Europe.

The announcement, broadcast by the country’s public broadcaster, came hours after tens of thousands of people gathered outside Georgia’s parliament for a second night of rallies, some clashing with police.

Protesters could be seen waving the flag of the European Union — which Georgia applied to join last year — and those of the United States and Ukraine, as well as the Georgian flag.

The controversial legislation would require organizations that derive 20% or more of their annual revenue from abroad to register as “foreign agents” or face heavy fines — a proposal that rights experts warn would bring about a chilling effect on civil society in the country and damage. its democracy.

Critics said it resembled similar laws used by Russia to stifle dissent and political opposition, and the announcement to drop the bill was welcomed by the European Union’s office in the former Soviet republic.

“We encourage all political leaders in Georgia to resume pro-EU reforms in a comprehensive and constructive way,” the office wrote on its official Twitter account.

Social media videos from Wednesday night showed some protesters throwing rocks at the building’s windows and trying to break through a protective barrier, with police using water cannons and tear gas.

Georgia’s Interior Ministry said it had arrested another 66 people for their involvement in the protests.

The participants of the rally violated public order and order throughout the night in different locations and resisted the police officers,” the statement said.

The announcement brings to 142 the total number of people arrested in connection with the protests held on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Police in riot gear confront protesters in Tbilisi early March 9, 2023. What was in the bill?

Georgia’s parliament was debating two bills, according to Giorgi Gogia, associate director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.

The first bill would require organizations, including non-governmental groups and print, online and broadcast media, to register as “foreign agents” if they receive 20 percent or more of their annual revenue from abroad.

The second expanded the scope of “agents of foreign influence” to include individuals and increased penalties for noncompliance from fines to five years in prison.

Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, said on Wednesday that the laws will help root out those who work against the interests of the country and the powerful Georgian Orthodox Church, Reuters reported.

He criticized Georgia’s “radical opposition” for inciting the protesters.

But Gogia said the draft laws were a clear threat to human rights in Georgia.

People hold flags of the European Union, Ukraine and the US during a demonstration outside the Parliament of Georgia in Tbilisi on March 8, 2023.

“They threaten to marginalize and discredit critical voices in the country. That threat is real,” he said. “Under the guise of transparency, recent statements by Georgian authorities strongly suggest that if passed, the law will be used to further stigmatize and penalize independent groups, media and critical voices in the country.”

Russia-aligned Belarus has had a citizenship law in place since 2002 that has a similar effect.

In December 2022, the Belarusian parliament approved amendments to the law that would allow the government to target members of the political opposition, activists and other critics in exile, according to Human Rights Watch.

The bill would allow the president to strip Belarusians abroad of their citizenship, even if they have none.

Georgia Balancing Act

Georgia, which gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, has long played a delicate balancing act between the pro-European sentiment of its citizens and the geopolitical ambitions of its powerful neighbor, Russia.

A statement from the EU on Tuesday warned that the law would be “incompatible with EU values ​​and standards” and could have “serious consequences” for the group’s relations with Georgia.

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili said she believes the bill is “very similar to Russian politics” and vowed to veto it.

“There is no need for this law, it comes from nowhere. Nobody asked for it,” Zourabichvili told CNN’s Isa Soares on Wednesday.

Zourabichvili had vowed to veto the bill, but supreme executive power rests with the government headed by Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili.

Georgia applied for EU membership in March 2022. Although it was not granted candidate status, the European Council has expressed willingness to grant it that status if Georgia implements certain reforms.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Wednesday that the bill was “Kremlin-inspired”.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, addressed the Georgian protesters directly, thanking them on Wednesday for raising his country’s flag during the demonstrations and wishing them “democratic success”.

“I want to thank everyone who carried Ukrainian flags in the squares and streets of Georgia these days,” Zelensky said.

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