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Georgia: Riot police clear 'foreign agents' bill protesters

April 16, 2024

Riot police aimed to remove protesters from outside the Soviet-era Parliament building in Tbilisi. Lawmakers have approved for further reading a draft bill of the Russian-style "foreign agents" bill.

Protesters wave Georgian national flags as they gather outside the parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia, Tuesday, April 16, 2024.
A crowd of protesters gathered outside the Soviet-era Parliament building to condemn the Russian-style 'foreign agents' billImage: Shakh Aivazov/AP Photo/picture alliance

Riot police started on Tuesday evening to clear protests organized outside Georgia's Parliament building in Tbilisi, as lawmakers approved a draft of a controversial NGO bill for further reading.

Thousands of protesters gathered for the second day outside Parliament, decrying the Russian-style "foreign agents" bill.

Police used pepper spray against the protesting crowds, with water cannon kept on standby. The Interior Ministry announced on social media that 11 people had been detained.

The controversial bill stipulates that non-commercial organizations and news media that receive 20% or more of their funding from overseas would have to register as "pursuing the interests of a foreign power."

What happened at the protests?

Inside parliament, the controversial bill received 78 votes in favor of further debate, with only 25 votes against. The ruling Georgian Dream party holds a commanding majority in the legislature and can pass it without support from the opposition.

Videos shared on social media purportedly showed riot police rushing toward protesters outside the Soviet-era building, in an attempt to break them up.

Georgians rally against ruling party's foreign funding bill

Thousands rallied outside the parliament, shouting: "No to the Russian law."

Hindrance to EU membership?

Speaking from the Tuesday protest, DW reporter Maria Katamazde said critics of the bill fear that if it passes, "it would be impossible for them to be an EU member one day."

Katamazde said authorities argue the bill aims at "transparency" regarding funds received by civil society organizations and that "they want to act independently, and not look at Brussels and Washington in that regard."

One protester told DW: "If they adopt the law, this will change the relationship between Georgia and Europe radically. This is what our European partners and friends are telling us directly: If we adopt the bill, it will be hard for our country to pursue European integration."

Another protester said, "These kinds of laws are going to make us closer to Russia. Russian politicians even welcomed this legislative initiative. We don't want it, because we want to cooperate with the West."

One Tbilisi local who was in favor of the bill, however, said it was "essential to adopt the foreign agent law. Why hasn't the government adopted it earlier? The revenues (those of NGOs and civil society groups) should be under absolute control."  

Calls for calm

The Georgian Interior Ministry called on protesters around parliament to follow security orders and "refrain from violent actions," saying that one of its employees has been injured.

The ministry warned that "if rally participants continue their illegal actions, the Ministry of Internal Affairs will administer special measures defined by law."

On Monday, police detained 14 people from another protest, which also saw thousands join forces against the controversial bill. 

Why are protests taking place against the bill?

The bill bears stark similarities to a Russian law notorious for facilitating the suppression of dissent.

The European Union, which gave Georgia candidate status in December, has said the draft law is "incompatible" with the bloc's values.

On Tuesday, European Council President Charles Michel said the law was inconsistent with "Georgia's EU aspiration and its accession trajectory." He also warned that enacting the bill would "bring Georgia further away from the EU and not closer."

Other Western states have also criticized the bill.

Police block protesters gathered outside the parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Tuesday, April 16, 2024.
Riot police tried to break up the protestsImage: Shakh Aivazov/AP Photo/picture alliance

President vows to veto bill

Georgia's pro-EU President Salome Zourabichvili has vowed to veto the bill if it is passed by Parliament.

"Georgia will not surrender to re-Sovietization," she said on social media. The mountainous Caucasus country is a former Soviet republic.

However, her term is set to end later this year. Under Georgia's constitution changes, the next president will be named by an electoral college that includes all members of parliament.

Mass protests as Russia-style law revived in Georgia

The bill is a slightly tweaked version of a similar proposal last year to designate such groups as "agents of foreign influence," which authorities abandoned following angry protests.

"But we can see already that they [authorities] are very very persistent with that and they are very dedicated to make it work this time round," DW's Katamazde said.

rmt/sms (AFP, Reuters)