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Georgians have been protesting a controversial bill for days. Lawmakers scrapped it

Georgian protesters rally outside the parliament as lawmakers vote to call off their controversial "foreign agent" bill in Tbilisi on Friday.
Vano Shlamov
/
AFP via Getty Images
Georgian protesters rally outside the parliament as lawmakers vote to call off their controversial "foreign agent" bill in Tbilisi on Friday.

Lawmakers in the former Soviet republic of Georgia voted to drop a controversial "foreign agents" bill on Friday after days of mass protests in the capital, Tbilisi, and widespread criticism from the West.

The law would have required all individuals, civil society organizations, and media outlets that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as foreign agents, opening the door to monitoring and possible sanctions.

Supporters say such a measure would increase transparency, but its many critics fear it would stifle dissent, the media and democracy itself. They compare it to a similar law in Russia that the Kremlin has used to crack down on NGOs and independent journalists.

Thousands protested outside the parliament building in Tbilisi this week in demonstrations that turned violent after police responded with water cannons and pepper spray.

The ruling Georgian Dream party reversed course on Thursday.

"As a party of government responsible to every member of society, we have decided to unconditionally withdraw this bill that we supported," it said in a statement translated by RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty.

The lawmakers cited the need to reduce "confrontation" in society, according to the BBC. But they also said the bill had been "represented in a bad light and in a misleading way," and that they plan to do more to clarify its purpose once the "emotional background subsides."

Eto Buziashvili, a researcher with the Atlantic Council, said that many in Georgia saw the withdrawal as a "tactical retreat," giving lawmakers time to regroup before reintroducing the bill.

"The protesters are posting on social media that they should not calm down, and they should not take this as a big win because there is always [the] threat that the ruling party will pass this law again," Buziashvili told Morning Edition on Thursday.

Protesters returned to the streets, even after that announcement, to push for the total abandonment of the bill and the release of the more than 100 people who had been arrested at previous days' demonstrations, the Associated Press reports. (The interior ministry said Friday it had freed all 133).

The following morning lawmakers voted 35-1 against the bill, in a session that lasted four minutes and included no discussion.

Many activists as well as Georgian officials — including the president — cheered the withdrawal of the bill, but suggested the struggle is far from over. And it comes at a time when the country, which shares a border with Russia, is pushing to align itself more with the West.

President Salome Zourabichvili had vowed to veto the bill, though lawmakers in the majority could have overridden it. She congratulated the Georgian people on their victory in a statement and video released Thursday from a working trip to the U.S.

"This will of the people was demonstrated wonderfully," she said. "This was shown not only in Georgia, but also abroad. All our partners saw this extraordinary attitude and really the will of the people towards the European path of Georgia."

What the law would do

The foreign agent bill is actually two pieces of legislation, which drew immediate backlash when lawmakers introduced them in February.

The first required non-governmental organizations and media outlets that receive more than 20% of their annual revenue from a "foreign power" (which includes government agencies, foreign citizens and other foundations and associations under international law) to register with Georgia's Justice Ministry.

They would also have to submit an electronic financial declaration and data about that funding, which Human Rights Watch says duplicates tax reporting obligations and puts peoples' privacy at risk. Those who do not comply could be fined the equivalent of $9,600.

"The proponents of the bill have not explained how this duplicative and onerous reporting increases transparency or accountability, but rather appears to be a blatant effort to restrict the ability of associations and media to operate freely and independently, and stigmatize independent groups," said Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

A second version of the bill, introduced later that month, expanded the definition of foreign agents to include individuals and increased the penalties from fines to up to five years in prison.

Activists and officials in Georgia and beyond were quick to criticize the proposed legislation. It was slammed by hundreds of local nongovernmental groups and media outlets, the United Nations in Georgia, the U.S. State Department and the European Union, among others.

"[The law] would stigmatize and silence independent voices and citizens of Georgia who are dedicated to building a better future for their own communities," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in February, adding that its adoption could "potentially undermine Georgia's Euro-Atlantic integration."

Protesters gather near the Georgian parliament building in Tbilisi on Thursday to protest the foreign agent bill.
Zurab Tsertsvadze / AP
/
AP
Protesters gather near the Georgian parliament building in Tbilisi on Thursday to protest the foreign agent bill.

Critics draw parallels to a repressive Russian law

Critics of the bill say it was modeled after Russia's "foreign agents law," which was passed in 2012 and has been used to crack down on NGOs, independent media and other Kremlin critics — especially during its war in Ukraine.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled last year that Russia's law violates the European Convention, which has an article protecting the right to association. It said restrictions for organizations that receive funding from foreign sources were not justified and interfere with their legitimate functions, Human Rights Watch explains.

"No to the Russian law" was one of the chants favored by protesters in Tbilisi this week.

Al Jazeera's Robin Forestier-Walker, who was at the protests, told All Things Considered on Wednesday that the law looks "eerily similar" to Russia's and will "have a very chilling effect on ... those organizations that do really hard work here to try to raise the level of Georgia's democratic status."

More than 80% of Georgia's population is in favor of joining the European Union, and Forestier-Walker saw people of all generations coming out to protest the law.

"They are genuinely aggrieved to see their government introducing Russian-style laws to muzzle free speech, to muzzle alternative opinions and to basically really take control of this country in an authoritarian way," he says.

He notes that the government has been "extremely capable at manipulating" the part of society that is worried about Georgia becoming too pro-Western, at risk of coming into another direct conflict with Russia (which invaded in 2008).

"At the same time, I get a sense that a lot of Georgians really say enough is enough, that this law goes one step too far," he adds.

Georgia is trying to join the EU and NATO

The vast majority of Georgian people are pro-Western, and the country has aimed to formalize those alliances since it gained independence in 1991. But the ruling Georgian Dream party — led by oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia — has made that difficult.

"In the last few years, and especially over the past 18 months, Georgia's ruling coalition has made a series of moves that seem designed to distance the country from the West and shift it gradually into Russia's sphere of influence," the European Council on Foreign Relations wrote in December.

Georgia is a close partner — but not a member — of NATO, which has promised since 2008 that the country can join when it meets "all necessary requirements."

It applied for EU membership, along with Ukraine and Moldova, in March 2022 just after Russia's invasion. It was the only one of the three to not get candidate status, which EU leadership said will only happen once it makes certain reforms.

The foreign agents bill was seen as hurting Georgia's chances, with the EU itself warning that adoption of the law would be "inconsistent ... with EU norms and values."

On Thursday, the EU delegation in Georgia welcomed the party's decision to withdraw the bill and encouraged its political leadership to resume pro-EU reforms.

Georgia's president, Zourabichvili, told Bloomberg that she doesn't think the near-passage of the bill will endanger the country's EU aspirations.

In fact, she thinks it has increased their odds, "because it has shown very effectively" where the Georgian public stands.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.