Georgia to drop foreign agents bill after massive protests

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Georgia’s ruling party said Thursday it would withdraw a bill that opponents warned would stifle dissent and curtail media freedoms, after days of massive protests demanding it be dropped.

The bill would have required media and nongovernmental organizations that receive over 20% of their funding from foreign sources to register as “agents of foreign influence.” Its opponents argued that it was inspired by a similar law in Russia that is used by authorities there to silence critics and that it could hinder Georgia’s aspirations to join NATO and the European Union.

Protests of the bill began last week, but swelled in recent days to bring tens of thousands of people to the streets of the capital, Tbilisi — and were met with tear gas and water cannons. The Interior Ministry said 133 demonstrators have been arrested.

Citing the “controversy in society” the bill triggered, the Georgian Dream party and its allies said they would withdraw the proposed law. But that process might be complicated since it has already passed its first of three required readings. A group of activists spearheading the protests said that demonstrations would resume on Thursday evening to ensure the bill is actually abandoned. They are also demanding the release of those arrested.

Georgia’s president, Salome Zourabichvili, had already said she would veto the bill — a move that indicated a growing divide between her and the Georgian Dream. Zourabichvili does not belong to any party, but the ruling one backed her candidacy in the 2018 presidential election. Since assuming office, however, she has increasingly disagreed with their decisions and policies, especially when it comes to foreign affairs.

Though they agreed to withdraw the bill, the Georgian Dream party and its allies alleged that the population had been misled about the proposal.

“The bill was labeled falsely as a ‘Russian law’ and its adoption in the first reading was presented in the eyes of a part of the public as a departure from the European course,” lawmakers said.

The proposed law did appear similar to one enacted in Russia in 2012 that has been used to shut down or discredit organizations critical of government.

The Georgian bill’s authors said it would make clear when the work of entities is financed by representatives of foreign states — but opponents saw it as a step toward introducing the same heavy-handed tactics that President Vladimir Putin has used to crack down on dissent. The critics said it could frustrate Georgia’s hopes of joining NATO and the European Union.

And two European Parliament members who handled the body’s relations with Georgia, Maria Kaljurand and Sven Mikser, indicated that concern was well-founded. The proposed law “goes directly against the Georgian authorities’ declared ambition to receive candidate status for EU membership,” they said.

Ruling politicians began to back off the bill on Wednesday evening, as tens of thousands of people took to the streets. They announced that Thursday’s discussions of the proposal would be canceled, and Parliament speaker Shalva Papuashvili asked for the measure to be assessed by the Venice Commission. The commission advises the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights body, on constitutional matters.

The EU delegation in Georgia welcomed the announcement of the withdrawal on Thursday, as did Khatia Dekanoidze, a parliament member from the pro-Western United National Movement party. She said that “our children managed to achieve this.”

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