Parliament discussions about controversial foreign agent bills have led to protests, physical confrontations, and detentions in Georgia.
Many fear the bills mark a watershed in the autocratic and anti-Western turn of the country's ruling party.
Many pro-Western Georgians woke up unusually early on March 6 to arrive at the parliament building in Tbilisi in the hope of obstructing the ruling party's plans to pass the bills through committee.
The bills, backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party, would force foreign-funded NGOs, media outlets, and possibly even individuals to register as "foreign influence agents" or face fines and possibly even jail time. They have been criticized as mimicking the practices of undemocratic countries such as Russia, which has used similar laws to stigmatize and silence critics.
And their passage would make it more likely that Georgia will again fail to receive European Union membership candidate status.
"I am asking more of you to come to the parliament and make more noise! We're doing everything in our power, but unity will be decisive in this fight," Ana Natsvlishvili, MP from the opposition Lelo for Georgia party, said in an appeal to the public after she was forced to leave the legal affairs committee hearing.
The noisy protests outside the parliament echoed the turbulence inside the building, where some opposition MPs were forced to leave the committee room amid heated arguments and even a brawl with ruling party lawmakers.
And it follows similar tensions on March 2 when the parliamentary majority secured the bills' endorsement at a joint session of defense and foreign relations committees. Dozens of arrests were made that day as protesters gathered around the parliament. Among the detainees were journalists, who are also barred from the committee meetings.
The two alternative bills, titled "on transparency of foreign influence" and "on registration of foreign agents," were initiated by People's Power, a group of stridently anti-Western MPs linked to the ruling Georgian Dream.
The parliamentary majority has claimed that the latter bill copies the U.S. Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), while the initial draft legislation is a milder version thereof. But the bills have faced criticism from Western partners and international organizations, with the U.S., United Nations, and European Union arguing that they would damage the country's democracy and also threaten vital social services that non-governmental actors have been providing through Western funding.
The European Union also said the bill would threaten media freedom and civil society activities. Bolstering these two areas are among the 12 priorities upon which the EU has conditioned Georgia's candidate status. Brussels will assess the country's progress in October.
This has raised fears that the Georgian Dream might be deliberately sabotaging EU integration, a process that enjoys over 80 percent support of the Georgian population, according to polls. Various Euroskeptical comments by the bills' authors have added to these concerns.
"The activities of all those political parties that contradict constitutional principles, the chosen path of our country and population, must be declared unconstitutional," Georgia's largely figurehead president, Salome Zourabichvili, said in a statement on March 2.
Article 78 of the constitution obliges constitutional bodies "to take all measures within the scope of their competences to ensure the full integration of Georgia" with the EU and NATO.
The president has vowed to veto the bill, but her veto can easily be overridden.
The ruling party plans to adopt both bills in the first hearing and then send them to the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe, for assessment. But the party has implied that regardless of the assessment (which is expected to be critical), it will still move ahead to adopt one of the two bills, citing the need for transparency.
But Georgian Dream faces growing public outcry against what many deride as "Russian" legislation. Numerous social and professional groups have spoken out against the bills, including students, professors, trade union representatives, artists, grassroots protest leaders, and business associations, while many foreign-funded media outlets and non-governmental organizations have vowed not to register as agents if and when the law is adopted.
Much as they claim the content of the bills is American (despite U.S. objections that it isn't), Georgian Dream asserts that their intent is to facilitate the country's EU integration (despite EU warnings that it won't).
In this regard, they claim the bills would serve to "depolarize" society, the EU's number one priority for Georgia's candidacy bid. This would happen through discouraging donors (obviously Western ones) from funding non-governmental entities that have played a polarizing role in the political process, the thinking goes.
"On one hand, we are told that the polarization must end and, on the other hand, someone, sometimes the same subject, funds this polarization," ruling party chairman Irakli Kobakhidze told Imedi TV on March 2. "Once we bring a certain clarity to everything, I think that this will have a preventive character. Some people will refrain from funding polarization."
But the same party has tried to push the legislation by resorting to increasingly polarizing and divisive rhetoric, including accusing civil society representatives of attacking the Georgian Orthodox Church.
"The public must know whose funding is being used to insult the church," Kobakhidze said, quoting church-critical statements by various opponents of the government. "Today, there was a rally of church denigrators in the parliament."
And new posters appeared in Tbilisi on March 6 branding a group of government critics as "spies who denigrate the church".
The ruckus led to the postponement of the bureau session, which is expected to greenlight the bill for plenary hearings, until the morning of March 7.
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.