Protesters in the Republic of Georgia secured a tentative victory after the government pledged to withdraw a controversial law slammed by critics as a catalogue of measures used to crush dissent by the Putin regime.
“We see that the adopted draft law has caused a difference of opinion in society,” the ruling Georgian Dream party said in an announcement on Wednesday. “We have decided to unconditionally withdraw the bill we supported without any reservations.”
The statement follows two nights of unrest that saw tens of thousands turn out in the capital Tbilisi after the draft law “On Transparency of Foreign Influence” was rushed through and approved at first vote on Tuesday evening.
The new law would require NGOs and media outlets that receive more than 20 per cent of their funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents” or face fines.
What’s happened at the protests?
Demonstrators have been targeted with water cannons, stun grenades, pepper spray and tear gas by riot police, with several roads shut down as cars were overturned, windows smashed, and at least one vehicle set ablaze. More than 130 people have been arrested amid the violence, which some say was instigated by the readiness of authorities to use excessive force in dispelling the crowds.
“It’s been completely disproportionate, and senseless. No-one was doing anything illegal before they started releasing the gas,” said Gia Pialudze, a 66-year-old filmmaker, on Wednesday night.
“Of course, [the police] had their orders, but it seemed like they were doing a lot of this without any reason.”
“I was here [at demonstrations for independence from the Soviet Union] in 1989,” he added. “After more than 30 years here I am again, fighting for our freedoms.”
What is the bill about?
In neighbouring Russia, a law on “agents of foreign influence” has notoriously been weaponised against voices critical of the Kremlin since it was first introduced in 2012.
Efforts to introduce similar measures in Georgia have sparked international outcry and harsh criticism from historic Western partners, particularly the United States and the European Union, as part of what many have described as a growing authoritarian shift in the South Caucasian country.
The recent draft law had also caused anger among the roughly 85 per cent of Georgians in favour of joining the EU, after the bloc said the proposed legislation would probably create significant obstacles for the country’s accession to the union. A decision to grant Georgia candidacy status was deferred last year given a lack of perceived willingness on the part of the government to implement reforms needed to eventually obtain membership.
“I’m here because I’m trying to protect the future of Georgia,” said Giorgi Zhvania, a 35-year-old IT manager, at the demonstration on Wednesday night. “This law is against human rights, and against our aspirations to become a greater part of Europe.”
“If the government keeps going like this, what will happen is that whoever can leave will leave, and whoever’s left behind will be in a failed state,” added Levan Tsiklauri, a 36-year-old software engineer. “I don’t want to leave, I want to remain here. I want to be able to raise my children in their own country.”
What is the reaction?
The European Union’s delegation to Georgia welcomed the decision to withdraw the bill, writing on Twitter: “We encourage all political leaders in Georgia to resume pro-EU reforms, in an inclusive & constructive way.”
It is not immediately clear how the government plans to suspend legislative proceedings for the bill. Legal experts say there is no formal mechanism for withdrawing the draft law, meaning it is still technically scheduled for a second vote at some stage in the coming weeks.
Georgian Dream also said it would make efforts in the near future to clarify why it believes such a law to be both necessary and consistent with the country’s European aspirations, criticising independent media and opposition figures for what they claim was a misrepresentation of the bill’s purpose.
“The machine of lies was able to present the bill in a negative light and mislead a certain part of the public,” the party said. “As the emotional background subsides, we will better explain to the public what the bill was for and why it was important to ensure transparency of foreign influence in our country.”
“Georgia will maintain peace and stability and continue moving towards Europe with dignity, which is the principle choice of Georgian society,” the party added.
While a welcome development for those who attended the recent demonstrations, the tone of these statements means many are breathing only a sigh of qualified relief this morning.
“I don’t believe it. It just buys them time to work out how to move forward and to refine their propaganda,” says Iulia Meladze, a 36-year-old project manager. “But yes, for the time being I suppose it is at least some good news.”