On Tuesday, protesters and police in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, clashed following parliament’s support of a draft law that has been criticized for limiting press freedom and suppressing civil society. Riot police dispersed the crowds outside the parliament building with water cannons and pepper spray.
Protesters who fell to the ground were seen coughing, while others waved EU and Georgian flags. The government reported that 50 police officers were hurt, and police gear was damaged, and 66 people were arrested, including one of Georgia’s opposition leaders, Zurab Japaridze, who was reportedly beaten.
The bill would require media and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad to declare themselves as “foreign agents,” subjecting them to hefty fines and imprisonment if they fail to comply. Critics argue that the Russian-style law is a step towards authoritarianism and would harm Georgia’s chances of joining the EU. Widespread international condemnation of the bill followed.
The EU is currently considering Georgia’s application for candidate status, and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned that the bill was “incompatible with EU values and standards.” The US State Department spokesman Ned Price described the draft legislation as a “tremendous setback” and stated that it “would strike at some of the very rights that are central to the aspirations of the people of Georgia.”
Russia passed its version of a “foreign agents” law in 2012, gradually expanding it over the years to target and suppress Western-funded NGOs and media. Passers of the Georgian law would see the country join the ranks of authoritarian post-Soviet states such as Belarus, Tajikistan, and Azerbaijan.
Speaking via video during a visit to New York, Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili voiced her support for the protesters, stating, “I am by your side. Today you represent free Georgia. Georgia, which sees its future in Europe, will not allow anyone to take away this future.”
Inside the parliament building, 76 lawmakers from the governing Georgian Dream party gave their initial support to the new “transparency of foreign influence” draft law. The anti-Western People’s Power movement, a close ally of the governing Georgian Dream party, submitted both the “transparency of foreign agents” and “registration of foreign agents” bills to parliament. The group argued that the second bill was an exact analogue of the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), while Georgian Dream supported the drafts, stating that such laws were necessary to improve transparency.
Protests have been called for Wednesday outside parliament, and tensions are expected to remain high as Georgia’s future hangs in the balance.
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