Police use pepper spray on demonstrators in Tbilisi protesting against foreign agents law

Police use pepper spray on demonstrators in Tbilisi protesting against foreign agents law
Thousands of demonstrators closed down the centre of Tbilisi, protesting against the so-called foreign agents law. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews April 29, 2024

Tensions soared in central Tbilisi after thousands of demonstrators filled the centre of the city on April 28 to protest against the so-called foreign agents law that is making its way through parliament.

Riot police were deployed to block access to the square in front of the parliament building and began to pepper spray protestors. According to estimates, approximately 20,000 people participated in the protests, which are in their twelfth day. The parliament building has been placed on yellow security alert, and visitor entry is restricted.

Large crowds closed down the city centre, marching towards the parliament building flying Georgian and EU flags and playing the EU’s anthem Ode to Joy.

The protest rally participants marched from the Republic Square towards the parliament, chanting “No, to Russian law! Yes - to Europe!"

As the crowds grew the government deployed riot police, which briefly clashed with demonstrators. Video on social media showed police pepper spraying demonstrators. TV Pirveli reported that its cameraman was injured after being pepper sprayed in the face by the police while covering the protest.

A newly married couple came to join the demonstration, the bride still in her wedding dress and were greeted with applause by the crowd.

The situation became extremely tense as it appeared the riot police were preparing to use force to disperse the crowd. However, at about 1am local time the police withdrew and tensions eased.

The protests have become pregnant with violence as the bill approaches its final reading.

To some observers, the protest resembled those in Kyiv ahead of the start of the EuroMaidan Revolution when Ukrainian protestors also called on its government to pursue a European direction, while the then president Viktor Yanukovych chose instead to abandon an EU deal and take a large loan from Russia instead.

The government is due to discuss the foreign agents bill in the second of three readings on April 29, having already passed it in the first reading. A second vote may happen in the first half of this week.

The situation remains tense and could deteriorate as more demonstrations led by civil society are expected. In an effort to claim some legitimacy, the government has organised its own pro-bill counter rally on April 29.

This is the second time the government has tried to pass the law,  which is modelled on a Russian law that Russian President Vladimir Putin has used to repress civil society and opposition journalists.

Georgian Dream was forced to back down in the face of mass protest last year and withdraw the bill, promising not to reintroduce it.

The EU warned the ruling Georgian Dream party last week that the 'foreign agents' bill could block its accession hopes and the European parliament passed a resolution calling for the freezing of Georgia’s access talks until the foreign agents law is struck off the books.

“The ruling party in Georgia is in survival mode and treats the law as a long-term political investment for perpetuation in power, which would guarantee legal immunity, impunity and economic opportunities for the ruling elites,” political analysts and bne IntelliNews columnist Denis Cenusa said in a post on X.

The Georgian church issued a comprehensive statement in support of the law “on foreign agents” and the country’s government, while accusing Georgian NGOs and media of being funded from abroad and campaigning for many years to discredit the church, promoting LGBT lifestyles and sin.

Leader of the Lelo party, Mamuka Khazaradze, founder of the leading TBC bank, addressed business representatives: “Now more than ever, we all need to unite and condemn the Russian law on foreign agents,” JAM News reported.

Foreign Minister Ilya Darchiashvili is currently in Brussels, participating in discussions on the expansion of the European Union. Georgia’s relations with the European Union are reportedly very tense; the country’s authorities have received several warnings from European leaders that Georgia’s European integration is jeopardized by the intention to adopt the foreign agents law.