Following two days of angry protests in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, Georgia’s ruling “Georgian Dream” party has “withdrawn” its controversial foreign-agent bill “unconditionally.”
Over the last two days, tens of thousands of protestors had gathered on Rustaveli Avenue in front of the Georgian parliament building to demand the repeal of the controversial bill.
Under the proposed legislation, non-government groups and media organisations with more than 20% of foreign funding would be forced to declare themselves as “foreign agents.” Protestors called this proposal “Russia’s law” as a similar system exists in the country, where the press is tightly controlled by the government and critical journalists are labelled as “foreign agents”, akin to “enemies of the state.”
Last year, Georgia failed to secure EU candidate status, but is an “aspirant” nation, working to align its legislation with EU standards. The proposed bill was generally viewed by European lawmakers as “incompatible” with EU values. If approved, the new law would have effectively ended the country’s EU aspirations.
The bill, as well as the “registration of foreign agents” bill, was first proposed by an openly anti-Western party, the People’s Power movement, and approved by members of the Georgia Dream. While the party describes itself as pro-European, the Georgia Dream party has been repeatedly accused of dropping its European aspirations in favour of rapprochement with Russia.
Chairman of the Georgian Dream party and speaker of the Georgian parliament, Irakli Kobakhidze, called opposition to the bill “unreasonable” and warned that if Georgia did not “protect the state from the plans of spies” then it would “not become a member of the European Union” and lose its “sovereignty.”
The country’s president, Salome Zourabichvili, had previously voiced her support for the protestors, despite her party’s backing of the bill. “I am by your side. Today you represent free Georgia. Georgia, which sees its future in Europe, will not allow anyone to talk away this future,” she said by video link during a visit to New York.
Despite the announcement that the controversial bill will be removed, Georgian protestors have stated their intention to continue their protests this evening.
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The Georgian Dream party has only “withdrawn” the bill and intends to clarify its reasoning behind the legislation, which it says mimics a similar 1930s law from America. Protestors want assurances that the law will be voted down in a second reading.
“The Georgian leadership’s announcement that it will ‘withdraw’ its Russian-style foreign agent law is meaningless. Laws adopted in first reading cannot be withdrawn,” Dutch MEP Thijs Reuten warned on Twitter. “Georgian Dream: Don’t ‘explain’ the law. Vote it down in a second reading. ASAP.”
Next Tuesday, MEPs and EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell will debate in the European Parliament the aftermath of the protests in Georgia.