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Huge protests in Georgia against "Foreign Agents" bill that could jeorpadize EU access

Thousands of protesters gathered in front of the parliament building in the Georgian capital Tbilisi on Tuesday evening to protest against the passing of a draft bill regarding the so-called "foreign agents". The people in the square were caught on video loudly chanting "No to the Russian law". The police attacked the protests violently, by using tear gas and water cannons, to which some protesters responded by throwing Molotov cocktails and stones.

The draft bill was approved by the Georgian parliament with 76 votes in favor and 13 against. It provides for the obligation for local organizations to register as "foreign agents" in case they receive more than 20% of their funds from abroad under penalty of a large fine. For it to be turned into law, the proposal must be re-read and approved a second and a third time by the parliament. The law resembles another very similar approved by Russia in 2012 and represents a real danger to the freedom of expression and the independence of the Georgian media.

People take part in a rally to protest against the adoption of the so-called 'Foreign Agents Law' in front of Parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia, 7 March 2023 (EPA-EFE/ZURAB KURTSIKIDZE)

President Salome Zourabichvili expressed her firm opposition to the bill, which she promised to veto. During the parliamentary voting, Zourabichvili was on a visit to the United States and commented on the lawmakers' vote in a video posted on her Twitter account. “The Georgia that sees its future in Europe will not allow anyone to take away this future,” said Zourabichvili in her video address.

In Georgia, however, the president's role is purely ceremonial, and parliament has the power to override her decisions. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, of the Georgian Dream party, exercises executive power. Garibashvili is considered fervently against the European Union, the United States, and in general the freedoms of civil society.

During what was considered as a particularly symbolic moment of last night's protests, a protester waved a European Union flag as police officers attempted to blast her with a water cannon. The scene recalled the protests that took place in Kyiv during the Euromaidan Revolution, against former President Viktor Yanukovych's decision to suspend talks on an association and an agreement with the EU in favor of closer ties with Russia.

Protesters took to the streets again on Wednesday evening to demand the abandonment of the proposed law on "foreign agents". On Thursday morning, the Georgian Dream party announced in a statement that the bill will be officially abandoned.

According to a survey conducted in November of last year by the International Republican Institute, 85% of Georgian citizens support their country's entry into the European Union. Popular sentiment, however, has not translated into any effort by the government to embark on the path of legislative reform required for EU membership. Georgia has recently seen its membership application rejected, after having presented it in March of last year.

Georgians fear that relations between the governing party - Georgian Dream - and Russia could definitively jeopardize the accession process. The founder of Georgian Dream is former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, an oligarch with strong ties to Russia, where he built his economic fortune in the 1990s.

In 2008, Georgia was invaded by the Russian Federation under a pretext similar to the one that prompted Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to invade Ukraine. The Kremlin sent its soldiers to the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are currently recognized by Russia as independent states.


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