Fury in Georgia as "foreign agent" vote ends in dispersal of protesters
Many see the adoption of Georgia's "foreign agent" legislation as a definitive geopolitical turn away from the West.
Georgian authorities deployed riot police to disperse protesters after a controversial "foreign agent" bill passed its first hearing in parliament on March 7.
MPs voted in favor of the draft law that would force foreign-funded NGOs and media outlets to register as "foreign influence agents," a move seen as an attempt to stigmatize and oppress government-critical voices.
That first hearing came amid heavy protests, which continued late into the night as riot police used water cannons, tear gas, and pepper spray to disperse crowds who gathered around the parliament building.
The parliament had moved ahead with deliberations on the bill "on transparency of foreign influence" despite having earlier announced plans to hold the hearing two days later. The last-minute schedule change was seen as an attempt to prevent the mass mobilization of protesters against what they call a "Russia-style" law.
Nonetheless, large crowds quickly gathered around the parliament building, eventually blocking traffic on Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi's central thoroughfare.
"Traitors," "Russians," and "slaves" were among the epithets protesters chanted at the ruling Georgian Dream party and its allies as they sought to pass the controversial bills.
While the parliamentary majority has claimed they are copying best Western practices to ensure the transparency of foreign funding, including the U.S. Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), a close comparison of the laws suggests the ruling elites are instead following oppressive practices of undemocratic countries such as Russia.
The fear is that the adoption of the bills would effectively put an end to decades-long efforts of the country to integrate into the European Union – a goal enshrined in the country's constitution and enjoying over 80 percent public support. This, many fear, would also mark Georgia's decisive turn away from the West and towards Russia.
At around 8 p.m. local time, the parliament, with 76 votes for and 13 against (plus 23 abstentions and 26 not present), passed the bill in the first of three hearings, further rousing the ire of the protesters. (The parliament did not deliberate on an alternative, more restrictive bill "on registration of foreign agents," and it is unclear if another vote will be held in the coming days.)
Soon afterward, police started deploying water cannons and tear gas to disperse the rally. Clashes occurred between small groups of protesters and riot police in some areas, while the tear gas spread widely, periodically forcing peaceful protesters to retreat and then again to reassemble. There were also incidents of incendiaries being thrown at police by protesters (which some critics suspect was part of a provocation to discredit the protests). The protest site remained packed well into the morning hours.
Police eventually cleared the entire area and detained 66 people, according to official sources.
A group of human rights watchdogs said police used “unlawful and disproportionate force” against protesters and accused the authorities of indiscriminate treatment of a larger group of peaceful demonstrators (there were episodes of officers aiming sprays straight into the faces of protesters or mixing what looked like pepper spray into the streams of water they used against protesters). According to the watchdogs, in some cases the forceful methods were also used without prior warning.
While there have been no reports of serious casualties, there were reports of injured among both protesters and police officers. The Interior Ministry said "up to 50" of its staff received injuries, some of which required surgical intervention. Protesters also required medical assistance, mainly for skin irritations and intoxication from the riot control substances. There were also allegations of unprovoked beatings.
The vote drew another wave of international outcry, with the EU warning the final adoption of the draft law "may have serious repercussions" for EU-Georgia relations.
"This law is incompatible with EU values and standards. It goes against Georgia's stated objective of joining the European Union, as supported by a large majority of Georgian citizens," Josep Borrell, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said in a March 8 statement.
Earlier, Brussels also suggested that the bill would flout at least two of 12 conditions it has for granting Georgia EU membership candidate status. The EU is expected to review the country's progress late this year.
The United States also warned of negative consequences for Tbilisi-Washington ties, hinting at possible punitive measures.
“Today is a dark day for Georgia’s democracy,” the U.S. Embassy in Georgia said after the vote. “Pursuing these laws will damage Georgia’s relations with its strategic partners and undermine the important work of so many Georgian organizations working to help their fellow citizens.”
On March 7, State Department spokesperson Ned Price was asked about the prospect of sanctioning Georgian Dream founder and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. Price responded by saying that "we have a number of tools within our purview that would allow us to hold accountable anyone in any country around the world who is responsible for the suppression of what would otherwise be a universal human right."
And addressing the nation from New York, Georgia’s largely figurehead president, Salome Zourabichvili, expressed solidarity with the protesters and reiterated her pledge to veto the bill (though the ruling party will easily be able to override her veto).
In spite of everything, Georgian Dream leaders continue to insist that the adoption of repressive bills would not have any negative effects on the country's democracy or European future. The morning after the drama, party chairman Irakli Kobakhidze claimed the protesters had been misled by the political opposition, and expressed confidence that the fury would abate.
"The public will learn very soon that the radicals again misled them," Kobakhidze told reporters on March 8. "We will march towards Europe with Christianity! We will march towards Europe with sovereignty! We will march towards Europe with dignity."
But fewer Georgians seem to be buying into the ruling party's heavily polarizing rhetoric, as more social groups, as well as prominent personalities, have directly or indirectly expressed opposition to the draft legislation. These have included famous athletes like rising soccer star Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, a highlight of Italy's Serie A league and one of the most loved individuals in Georgia at the moment.
The party says the bill now will go to the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe, and the next moves will depend on the assessment they receive, in a few months' time.
Few believe, however, that the expected critical assessment will force Georgian Dream and its allies to change their minds.
In the meantime, protests continue, with another rally convening on Rustaveli Avenue at the time of publication.
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.
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