Georgia's ruling party pledges to drop foreign agent bills after major protests
The ruling party promised it would go through all formal procedures to defeat one of the bills, which already passed in the first reading. That will take more than 10 days though.
Georgia's ruling party has said it decided to withdraw its two controversial "foreign agent" bills after days of intense protests and mounting international pressure.
The Georgian Dream party stated on March 9 that it was withdrawing the draft laws that would force foreign-funded NGOs, media outlets, and possibly also individuals to register as "foreign influence agents." The statement came the morning after police had attempted to disperse massive protests against the bills for the second consecutive night.
"As a ruling force responsible to every member of the public, we made the decision, unconditionally and without reservation, to withdraw the draft law that we had supported," said the statement by the parliamentary majority, which consists of Georgian Dream and People's Power, the group of MPs that drafted the bill.
But the party seemed to stand by the bill, blaming the backlash on a "machinery of lies" that it claimed misled the public by portraying it as a "Russian law" and as detrimental to the country's European path.
"After emotions subside, we will better clarify to the public what purpose the draft law served and why it was important to ensure the transparency of foreign influence in our country," the party and its allies said, pledging to start "meetings with the public" to convey the "truth."
Georgian Dream had promised to endorse one of the two alternative bills on foreign agents initiated by its allies in People's Power. It claimed the bills followed Western transparency practices like the U.S. Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA).
But a close comparison, as well as party rhetoric and the timing of the discussions, suggested it instead copied the experience of undemocratic countries such as Russia, where similar laws had the effect of silencing and stigmatizing government-critical voices.
On March 7, following a last-minute schedule change, the parliamentary majority adopted the first of the bills, "on transparency of foreign influence," in the first reading.
The majority then sent both bills to the Venice Commission, the advisory body of the Council of Europe, for legal assessment. The ruling party leaders claimed they would return to the bills after receiving the assessment in a few months' time, but indicated that they would go ahead with the legislation regardless of what the commission had to say.
The adoption of the first bill in the first reading, however, came amid intense protests and enormous international pressure. The United Nations warned of the disruption of vital services provided through foreign funding as a result, while the U.S. and the EU said its adoption would harm their ties with Georgia.
In particular, Brussels made it clear the adoption of the "foreign agents" bill would go against the country's declared (and constitutionally enshrined) path of European integration and threaten the country's bid to receive EU candidate status later this year.
In Georgia, where EU integration enjoys over 80 percent public support, those warnings were taken particularly seriously. Representatives of various segments of society, as well as many prominent and revered cultural figures, spoke out against the bill, leading to mounting public resistance to its adoption.
And the legislative deliberations inspired massive protests as tens of thousands rushed to the parliament building over the past two days. On both protest nights, riot police used water cannons, tear gas, and pepper spray to disperse the crowds, only to see large groups of protesters reassemble and continue their resistance.
The situation was particularly dramatic on the night of March 8-9, when protesters turned to blocking roads, building barricades, and dancing to police sirens in response to the police's use of force. Over 130 persons were detained during the protests, according to official sources.
Georgian Dream's decision to back down in the face of these protests marks a departure from its increasingly uncompromising approach to governing in recent years.
But the party's initial statement made critics wary. It made no mention of the second, more restrictive bill that remained under consideration, and made no commitment to vote down the first bill as procedures require since it had already passed the first reading.
And the parliament's office said this week's plenary sessions have been called off, citing the damage the parliament building suffered amid the past days' protests.
"If they do not vote down the bill, this means that they are buying time to delay the protests until summer when the conclusion of the Venice Commission will be probably available," Levan Alapishvili, a lawyer, told Interpressnews shortly after Georgian Dream's initial statement.
In response to widespread public distrust of its intention, the ruling party held a briefing about five hours later. The party specified that a request had already been filed to withdraw the second bill from MPs' consideration, that requests had been sent to the Venice Commission withdrawing both bills' applications, and that a vote would be held in parliament to defeat the first bill.
Georgian Dream faction head Mamuka Mdinaradze said the decision was taken in order to prevent further unrest.
“We chose not to put the life and health of even a single person, even a single child there at risk,” he said referring to the past two nights' protests.
But it will take more than 10 days before the next plenary session, leaving bill critics tense and concerned.
Mdinaradze sought to allay such anxiety: "This is a political decision that everyone understands cannot be taken back. … The protests will be 10 times bigger if we go back on it."
Despite this assurance, bill opponents vow to continue to exert pressure on the ruling party and to hinder any attempts by it to mislead the public. Another rally has been scheduled today at the parliament to demand that the ruling party carry out due procedures for the final withdrawal of both bills and release those detained during the protests.
The EU mission in Georgia has welcomed the ruling party's move, encouraging Georgian political leaders "to resume pro-European reforms, in an inclusive and constructive way and in line with the 12 priorities for Georgia to achieve candidate status."
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.