Protesters against foreign agent laws clash with police in Tbilisi

Protesters against foreign agent laws clash with police in Tbilisi
The ruling Georgian Dream party has said that no matter what the Venice Commission decides, one of the bill’s versions will be passed. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews March 8, 2023

There were violent demonstrations outside the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi on the evening of March 7 as lawmakers passed controversial foreign agent laws that critics say would undermine civic organisations and press freedom, and could damage the country's ambitions to join the European Union.

Police arrested at least four protesters and used water cannon, tear gas and pepper spray to disperse thousands of demonstrators outside the parliament building, some of whom threw Molotov cocktails. The government said several policemen were hurt and police gear was damaged.

Earlier this week lawmakers had brawled as they debated the bills.

The two versions of the legislation, supported by the ruling Georgian Dream Party, would require any organisation that receives over 20% of its funding from overseas to register as foreign agent or face substantial fines. According to one version of the law, their leaders could face up to five years in prison. Critics have compared it to a similar Russian law that has had a chilling effect on civil society groups, NGOs and media organisations.

More than 60 media outlets and civil society groups declared last month that they would not comply with the legislation if it was passed. The group said on Monday, March 6 that they believed the aim of the law was to silence critical voices.

"Media and public organisations cannot reflect corruption, injustice and poverty in the country," they said.

President Salome Zurabishvili has said she would veto the bills, but Parliament can override her decision.

The European Union and the United States have also criticised the proposed laws. 

The adoption of the Georgian version of the law on foreign agents would be an unfavourable development for Georgia and its people, and will run counter to Tbilisi’s EU membership aspirations, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell said in a statement.

"On Tuesday, the Georgian parliament adopted the new law on 'transparency of foreign influence' in a first reading. This is a very bad development for Georgia and its people," the EU foreign policy chief said on March 8. "This law is incompatible with EU values and standards. It goes against Georgia’s stated objective of joining the European Union." He also urged to respect "the right of people to a peaceful protest".

The EU conferred candidate member status upon Ukraine and Moldova in the summer of 2022, but said Georgia still had to meet various milestones before it could be awarded that status.

The EU is also unhappy with the government's proposed law to tighten its control over the central bank, and its treatment of jailed opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili.

Supporters argue that the foreign agent laws  are necessary to improve the transparency of NGOs and the media. Earlier, the Georgian Dream ruling party announced it will send the two foreign agent bills to the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission for review. The ruling party said that no matter what the Venice Commission decides, one of the bill’s versions will be passed. 

The Power of the People faction, composed of deputies who departed from Georgian Dream and hold anti-Western views, submitted the original bill to Parliament in mid-February. The opposition alleges that this is a political game and that Georgian Dream is controlling Power of the People and using it as a stalking horse.

The pro-Western opposition accuses Georgian Dream of trying to "sit on two chairs", backing Georgia's aspirations to join the EU while also doing everything to avoid antagonising Russia, where the party's founder, oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, made his fortune. 

Georgia did not participate in the sanctions against Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, causing Kyiv, which supported Georgia during its war with Russia in 2008, to criticise Tbilisi. Around one fifth of Georgian territory is still occupied by Russian-backed forces.

Most Georgians back EU membership but the country has become even more economically dependent on Russia since Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.