The Georgian government has withdrawn its repressive ‘foreign agent’ law in response to backlash, but demonstrations are set to continue
Over the past two nights, young people in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, have danced to the sound of blaring sirens and handed flowers to riot police. They are among thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets to stand up against a controversial bill that, they say, marks a decline into Russia-style repression.
On Tuesday (March 7), demonstrations against the country’s controversial “foreign agent” law saw violence between protesters and police, who used tear gas and water cannons to disperse crowds around the city’s parliament building. More than 60 people were arrested, as protesters retaliated with stones and petrol bombs. Later on Wednesday, more clashes broke out, with a build up of riot police who also threw stun grenades and reportedly beat protesters (though, unlike the night before, there were no signs of petrol bombs or stones thrown at police).
So far, the protests have been successful. On Thursday, Georgian Dream – a political party founded by the shadowy billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, which rules alongside coalition partners – announced that it would withdraw the bill “unconditionally” following the public backlash. Many in Georgia, however, suggest that the cancellation of the law doesn’t go far enough, and have promised to keep applying pressure until they see “real change”.
Below, we’ve gathered what you need to know about the protests, and where Georgians might go from here.
WHAT IS THE ‘FOREIGN AGENT’ LAW?
The bill at the centre of the protests passed its first reading in Georgian parliament on Tuesday. Backed by the Georgian Dream party, the law could deem any Georgian media company or NGO a “foreign agent” if they receive more than 20 per cent of their funding from foreign sources, opening them up to unspecified “monitoring”.
According to Georgian Dream chairman Irakli Kobakhidze, the law would help to root out those working to undermine the country and the Georgian Orthodox Church. However, many experts and Georgian citizens (including president Salome Zourabichvili) say that it’s a sign of the ruling party’s creeping authoritarianism, and “just the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to limiting democratic freedoms.
WHAT DOES IT HAVE TO DO WITH RUSSIA?
On Wednesday, many protesters in Tbilisi carried Ukrainian flags, alongside Georgian and EU flags, in solidarity with the nation’s fight against the Russian invasion. Many also chanted anti-Russian or pro-Ukrainian slogans such as: “Never going back to the USSR”, “Georgia belongs to Europe”, and “Slava Ukraini”.
The sentiment is reflected across Georgia, which lost a fifth of its territory to Russia in 2008. It’s significant now, however, because the “foreign agent” law – which is also referred to as the “Russian law” – is said to be directly inspired by a similar law used by Vladimir Putin to suppress independent media and other organisations. This comes amid broader fears that the Georgian Dream party is sliding toward more repressive forms of government and aligning itself with Russian interests.
WHAT DOES THE ‘RUSSIAN LAW’ MEAN FOR GEORGIA AND THE EU?
According to recent polls, more than 80 per cent of Georgians support the government’s plans to join the EU. However, Brussels have already stated that the “foreign agent” law is incompatible with joining the union. The US have also suggested that the bill stands in the way of the country joining Nato, a western alliance that could potentially help protect it from future Russian aggression.
HOW HAVE THE GOVERNMENT RESPONDED TO THE PROTESTS?
The authoritarian response to the public protests against the “foreign agent” law speaks for itself, with images of civilians being blasted by water cannons or choked with tear gas flooding social media.
On Thursday, however, the Georgian Dream party released a statement in which it said it would “unconditionally withdraw the bill we supported without any reservations”, citing a need to reduce “confrontation” in society. The EU delegation to Georgia welcomed the news, saying that it urged all Georgian political leaders to resume pro-EU reforms “in an inclusive and constructive way”.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
“While the government announced the law's cancellation, our fight must continue until we see real results,” said Tbilisi broadcaster Mutant Radio in a March 9 Instagram post. This seems to reflect growing opposition toward the Georgian Dream party and a lack of trust in the government across the country. Experts similarly warn that pro-democracy protesters shouldn’t celebrate too soon, and could use the momentum to break all ties with Russia and pave the way to join the EU.
The next protest is planned for 7pm tonight, outside the Georgian parliament.