Georgia foreign agents bill draws protesters onto the streets

Protests have now become a daily sight in Tbilisi and show few signs of abating.

For the last ten days, thousands of Georgians – many in their late teens and early twenties – have been bringing the traffic of the capital, Tbilisi, to a standstill.

They demand that the government scrap plans to introduce a controversial bill – dubbed the “foreign agent” law – many say is inspired by authoritarian legislation neighbouring Russia uses to crush dissent.

On 17 April, parliament passed the bill in its first reading – the first of three barriers it must overcome before becoming law.

“I am here for my European future,” says 23-year old Gvantsa “Pertso” as she sits with her friends next to the Georgian parliament, a meeting point for rallies.

She is among members of Georgia’s Gen Z who have been marching through Tbilisi with EU and Georgian flags draped around their shoulders, holding banners and chanting “No to the Russian law!”

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

They would also be monitored by the Justice Ministry and could be forced to share sensitive information – or face hefty fines of up to 25,000 GEL ($9400; £7500).

Because NGOs and civil society organisations in Georgia are involved in election monitoring, protesters are also concerned the bill could be used to crush critical voices ahead of the parliamentary elections later this year.

Parallels have been drawn with an authoritarian bill which came into force in Russia in 2012, and which the Russian government has since used to marginalise voices challenging the Kremlin – including prominent cultural figures, media organisations and civil society groups.

EPA Georgian opposition party supporters attend a protestProtesters are concerned the bill will crush critical voices ahead of the parliamentary elections later this year

Many are also worried that such a law will derail Georgia from its path towards the much-coveted EU membership which – as a poll by the US National Democratic Institute showed – is supported by nearly 80% of Georgians.

Georgia was granted EU candidate status in December 2023 – but now both Brussels and Washington have said the adoption of the foreign agents law would be detrimental to Georgia’s European ambitions.

A number of European leaders have warned the proposed bill is “incompatible” with European norms and values, including European Council President Charles Michel, who said the law would “bring Georgia further away from the EU and not closer.”

But Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze is standing firm.

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

He and his government insist the bill is about ensuring transparency, and rejects the notion that it is against European values – or that Russia is behind the legislation.

In fact, Georgian Dream has sought to distance itself from Russia over the bill, flatly rejecting any perceived similarity with the Russian law as “disinformation” and denouncing Russian messaging about the protests in Georgia as inflammatory.

Reuters Georgian Prime Minister Irakli KobakhidzePrime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze insists the bill is about ensuring transparency

Tamar Oniani, a representative of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association NGO, is sceptical. She has been protesting the bill, which she says is about “suppressing civil society” and “in the interest of Russia.”

“That’s why we are here,” she tells the BBC from the side lines of a protest. “We think that it is an issue of foreign policy for Georgia, because it would shift us from EU to Russia.”

Anna Dolidze, of the opposition party For The People, says that the law is a Russian “test of allegiance” for the Georgian Dream party, whose task is to “pass this law and remain softly authoritarian… through the indirect silencing of critics.”

Referring to similar legislation passed in neighbouring Turkey, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan, Ms Dolidze says: “Countries that are pro-Russian in the so-called Russian neighbourhood have been asked to pass this law… as a way to create a divide between them and Europe.”

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

For its part, Russia has rubbished allegations of meddling.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the protests against the Georgian government’s bill were provoked by foreign forces who wanted to stir up anti-Russian sentiment in the country – but denied that Russia had any connection to the legislation.

Analysts disagree. Sopo Gelava, a disinformation specialist with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Lab, says that pro-Kremlin Facebook pages have been spreading claims that the West is behind the protests and pushing the narrative that the US is “planning a coup” in Georgia ahead of the October parliamentary elections.

“At least five pages that I’m looking at the moment have a sponsored post claiming that there is a secret plan to overthrow the government,” Mr Gelava says.

Reuters Protesters in GeorgiaEuropean leaders have warned the proposed bill is “incompatible” with European norms and values

Protesters in Tbilisi have few doubts that this is a crossroads moment, and continue taking to the streets to vent their anger towards the government. Protests have now become a daily sight in Tbilisi, and show few signs of abating.

“Nine out of ten people in the street will say that our destination is Europe,” says student Andria Chilaidze. “I don’t know why [government officials] are doing this.”

Georgia’s President Salome Zourabichvili, who is in a bitter dispute with the government, told the BBC that questions remained over who might be behind its renewed push to adopt the law.

“Is it in Georgia or is it beyond our borders, is it in Moscow that this decision has been taken?” she asked.

“That is the main question about transparency that the Georgian population is asking.”

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