Georgia’s ruling party has withdrawn a controversial bill from parliament after two nights of protests against the proposed law, whose critics say marked a slide into Russia-style repression.
In a statement on Thursday Georgian Dream, the party controlled by the reclusive billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, and its coalition partner said they would withdraw the bill “unconditionally” after the public outcry.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Tbilisi on Tuesday and Wednesday waving EU, Ukrainian and American flags in what was reminiscent of massive pro-EU demonstrations in Ukraine before Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Georgian demonstrators chanted “No to Russian law’’, “Never going back to the USSR”, “Georgia belongs to Europe” and “Slava Ukraini” (Glory to Ukraine).
The protests started after a draft “foreign agent” law — apparently inspired by a similarly named law in Russia that President Vladimir Putin used to crush independent media and non-governmental organisations — passed its first reading in parliament on Tuesday. The bill would have required all media outlets and NGOs to register as “foreign agents” if they received 20 per cent of their funding from abroad.
The US and Brussels had said the law was incompatible with Georgia’s efforts to join the EU and Nato.
Each night police used water cannons, tear gas and stun grenades to break up the protests. At least one police car was overturned and a total of 133 people have been arrested by law enforcement officers.
“We are here to protect western values and our constitution which states that the Georgian government should take all measures to ensure the full integration of Georgia into the EU and Nato,” said Zurab Tatanashvili, lecturer at Tbilisi State University, who took part in the protest. “The government chose to go against our western allies . . . Instead, they took steps that are liked by the Kremlin.”
As clouds of tear gas rose above the streets of Rustaveli Avenue and the sirens went off, a group of Georgian youngsters started dancing. Some handed out roses to policemen, in a nod to the so-called Rose Revolution of 2003 that swept pro-western leader Mikheil Saakashvili into power. He is at present serving a prison term in Georgia in what his lawyers say are inhumane conditions, with the ruling party refusing to transfer him for medical care abroad despite calls from Kyiv and western capitals to do so.
Georgian Dream on Thursday admitted that the bill had “caused differences of opinion in society” but blamed a “machine of lies” for casting it in a negative light and misleading the public. It said the label “Russian law” was false and did not veer the country off its European course.
President Salome Zourabichvili, who is not a member of Georgian Dream but was backed by the party when she ran for the presidency in 2018, expressed her support for the protesters in a video message recorded in the US against the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty and vowed to veto the law.
Opposition MP Anna Natsvlishvili praised her fellow citizens for showing “unprecedented unity” and forcing the government to “take a step back”.
“Georgian people once again spoke up and said Georgia’s future is in Europe, Georgia belongs in the EU, this is our choice,” she said.
The most recent polls show that 85 per cent of Georgians support EU membership. Anti-Kremlin sentiments are high, given that Russia maintains control over 20 per cent of the country’s territory after a brief war in 2008.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief diplomat, said the protests had expressed Georgia’s “aspiration for democracy and European values. These peaceful protest[s] were strong and moving to see.” Borrell added that while the law’s withdrawal was “a good sign, now concrete legal steps need to follow.”
Civil society groups warned against celebrating victory too soon, echoing Borrell’s comments on the outstanding procedural steps before the draft law was abolished. “The fight is not over yet, Georgian civil society doesn’t trust the Georgian government anymore,” said Eka Gigauri, head of Transparency International Georgia.
Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Brussels