Georgians rally against "foreign agents" bill in largest protest in country's history

Georgians rally against
Despite mounting opposition and criticism, Georgian Dream appears determined to push the bill forward. / bne IntelliNews
By Tornike Mandaria in Tbilisi May 13, 2024

Tens of thousands of Georgians opposing the "foreign agents" bill flooded the streets of Tbilisi on Saturday in what is being heralded as the largest protest in the history of the country.

The demonstrators, an estimated 50,000 to 150,000 people, marched peacefully through the capital, blocking much of the city's roads as they converged on Europe Square, chanting "no to the Russian law!" and "Georgia belongs to us!" and waving Georgian and EU flags.

The proposed legislation, which mandates organisations receiving over 20% of their funding from abroad to register as agents of foreign influence, has ignited a fierce political crisis in a country that aspires to join the EU and Nato. Dubbed "the Russian law" by its critics, the bill is similar to legislation in Russia targeting critics of President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin.

Despite assurances from the ruling party, Georgian Dream, that the bill aims to promote transparency and national sovereignty, opposition groups, civil society, and even the country's president have fiercely criticised it.

The bill's supporters, such as Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov and ultra-nationalist and anti-globalist thinker Alexander Dugin, have further fuelled the controversy.

Saturday's demonstration voiced their rejection of what they perceive as a threat to media freedom, civil society and Georgia's European aspirations.

With parliament set to commence the bill's final reading on May 14, organisers have called for continuous protests, urging Georgians to make their voices heard.

Students from over 20 universities have declared strikes and voiced support for the demonstration.

President Salome Zurabishvili has proposed to the Georgian Dream party that they should postpone the implementation of a law until November 1, following the elections, so that "whoever comes to power, let them decide whether this law is Russian".

The president once again reiterated that she will veto the law but will not provide motivated legal arguments to the parliament or enter into further discussion, as this law is unacceptable to her in any form.

On May 12, starting from 21:00, several thousand gathered in front of the parliament to spend the night there, aiming to interfere with MP's from the Georgian Dream party entering the parliamentary building on May 13.

On a special briefing just a few hours prior to the protest,  Minister of Internal Affairs Vakhtang Gomeluri warned demonstrators planning to block parliament building that they faced imprisonment for up to four years, under an article that prohibits the seizure or blockade of a strategic or highly significant facility. 

International scrutiny has intensified, with the European Union warning of the bill's potential to impede Georgia's integration efforts. The United States has also expressed grave concerns, with senior officials condemning the legislation and urging its withdrawal.

"Georgian Dream’s recent rhetoric, proposed legislative changes, and actions go against the aspirations of the Georgian people and are designed to isolate Georgians from the United States and Europe. We stand with the Georgian people", White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan wrote on X. 

"We are deeply alarmed about democratic backsliding in Georgia. Georgian parliamentarians face a critical choice: whether to support the Georgian people’s EuroAtlantic aspirations or pass a Kremlin-style foreign agents' law that runs counter to democratic values," he said. 

Jim O'Brien, the US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, is expected to visit the country.

Despite mounting opposition and criticism, Georgian Dream appears determined to push the bill forward. The government claims that the legislation aims to safeguard against "harmful foreign influence" from US and EU.