Participants march during a protest against a draft law on “foreign agents”, which critics say represents an authoritarian shift and could hurt Georgia’s bid to join the European Union, in Tbilisi, Georgia, March 8, 2023. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze
By Felix Light
TBILISI (Reuters) -Georgia’s ruling party said on Thursday it was withdrawing a bill on “foreign agents” after two nights of violent protests against what opponents called a Russian-inspired authoritarian shift that imperilled hopes Georgia joining the European Union.
The Georgian Dream party said in a statement it would “unconditionally withdraw the bill we supported, without any reservations”. It cited the need to reduce “confrontation” in society, while denouncing “lies” about the bill spread by the “radical opposition”.
News reports late on Thursday said parliament scheduled an extraordinary session for Friday to deal with the bill. Large crowds remained outside the parliament building well after midnight and rallies were expected during Friday’s session.
Giga Lemonjava, a representative of the Droa party, said protesters wanted the government to formally denounce the bill and ensure the release all those detained in the demonstrations.
The Black Sea country of 3.7 million people has seen frequent political upheaval since winning independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, including a peaceful “Rose Revolution” in 2003 and a calamitous war against Russia five years later.
The bill would have required Georgian organisations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents” or face fines.
Government officials said the proposals sought to root out “foreign influence” and “spies”.
‘RUSSIAN’ LAW, OPPONENTS SAY
Opponents described the bill as a local version of a law that Russian President Vladimir Putin has used to crush dissent for more than a decade.
“It was a Russian law that had to be recalled and should not have gone through parliament under any conditions”, said Nika Oboladze, 32.
“Because 90% of Georgians support European integration and nothing should stop that.”
The United States welcomed the decision to withdraw the draft law, but called on the ruling party to officially retract it and not further such legislation.
“We encourage Georgia’s political leaders to work together in earnest on the reforms urgently needed to obtain the EU candidate status that Georgia’s citizens overwhelmingly desire,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was “concerned” by events in Tbilisi, and said that the Georgian bill bore no relation to Russian laws.
“The Kremlin didn’t inspire anything there, the Kremlin has absolutely nothing to do with it,” Peskov said.
The Georgia ruling party has said the bill was modelled on the U.S. 1938 “Foreign Agents Registration Act”, which primarily covers lobbyists and organisations directly working for or under the control of foreign governments.
The European Union’s delegation to Georgia also welcomed the proposed withdrawal of the bill. “We encourage all political leaders in Georgia to resume pro-EU reforms, in an inclusive & constructive way,” it said on Twitter.
Parliament gave the draft law initial approval on Tuesday. Tens of thousands of protesters then gathered outside the parliament, some throwing petrol bombs, stones and plastic bottles at police. The authorities said dozens were detained.
Police used tear gas, water cannon and stun grenades to break up a second night of protests on Wednesday.
The interior ministry said all the protesters detained for non-criminal offences had been freed. It said some detainees appeared in court.
The bill has deepened a rift between Georgian Dream, which has a parliamentary majority, and President Salome Zourabichvili, a pro-European who has moved away from the party since being elected with its support in 2018.
Zourabichvili had said she would veto the bill, though parliament can override her.
“I want to congratulate the whole of society on this first victory of its kind. I welcome these correct steps taken by the government – the fact that they announced the withdrawal of this draft law,” Zourabichvili said on her Facebook (NASDAQ:META) page.
Georgia’s opposition has long accused Georgian Dream of being too close to Moscow. Anti-Russian feeling runs high in Georgia over Moscow’s backing for separatists in two breakaway regions, which led to the brief 2008 war.
All major parties, including Georgian Dream, support the idea of joining the EU and NATO. Last year, Brussels declined to grant Georgia EU candidate status alongside Moldova and Ukraine, citing stalled political and judicial reforms.