TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Georgia’s governing party said Thursday it would withdraw draft legislation that opponents — and tens of thousands of protesters who swarmed the capital — warned could stifle dissent and curtail media freedoms, ushering in Russian-style repression.
The bill would have required media and nongovernmental organizations that receive more than 20% of their funding from foreign sources to register as “agents of foreign influence.” Its opponents argued the bill was inspired by a similar law in Russia that’s used to silence critics, and could hinder Georgia’s aspirations of one day joining NATO and the European Union.
Protests against the bill began last week in the capital, Tbilisi, but swelled in recent days and were met with tear gas and water cannons. The Interior Ministry said 133 demonstrators were arrested, although Georgian police late announced they had released all who face administrative charges and not criminal prosecution, without specifying how many.
Citing the “controversy in society” the proposed law triggered, the governing Georgian Dream party and its allies said they would withdraw it.
But that process might be complicated since the bill already passed its first of three required readings. Protests resumed Thursday evening, with tens of thousands demonstrating to ensure the bill is actually abandoned — as well as the release of those arrested.
“Today definitely is the first victory that this protest has brought, but this fight has not ended yet,” said Nino Lomjaria, a former public defender rallying in front of parliament Thursday.
“We do not trust the promises of the ruling party, which it often gives just to defuse protests,” she said.
A session of Parliament to abolish the bill was scheduled for Friday at noon. Protesters vowed to gather outside.
Georgia’s president, Salome Zourabichvili, had already said she would veto the bill, indicating a growing divide between her and 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 on foreign affairs.
Opposition parties in recent years accused Georgian Dream of pursuing pro-Russian policies while claiming to be Western-oriented. Opponents charge that the party’s founder, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili who amassed a fortune in Russia, has continued calling the shots in the Black Sea nation of 3.7 million, even though the former prime minister currently doesn’t hold a government job.
The party has repeatedly denied any links to Russia or that it leans toward Moscow.
Russia-Georgia relations have been rocky and complicated since the Soviet Union’s collapse. The two countries fought a short war in 2008 that ended with Georgia losing control of two Russia-friendly separatist regions. Tbilisi had severed diplomatic ties with Moscow, and the issue of the regions’ status remains a key irritant, even as relations have somewhat improved.
Still, Russia “has plenty of levers to pull,” according to James Nixey, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at London-based think tank Chatham House.
That includes political and economic clout, Nixey said, “not least with Ivanishvili himself, the man whose fortune was made in Russia and whose proclivities are pro-Russian and anti-Western.”
Although they agreed to withdraw the bill, the Georgian Dream party and its allies say public opinion 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 Georgian bill’s authors said it would make clear when the work of entities is financed by representatives of foreign states, and was modeled on the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938.
The proposed law did appear similar to one enacted in Russia in 2012, which has been used to shut down or discredit organizations that are critical of the government and President Vladimir Putin.
The proposed law would allow Ivanishvili to consolidate power and “sufficiently suppress the opposition” ahead of the next parliamentary election in 2024, Nixey said.
Ghia Nodia, a Tbilisi-based political analyst, said the decision to introduce the law likely came from Ivanishvili, who “has the same view more or less as Mr. Putin: that these NGOs are puppets of the West.”
“Ivanishvili sees the West increasingly as an enemy that wants to drag Georgia into the war” in Ukraine and replace Georgia’s current government, Nodia said. Ivanishvili sees NGOs and independent media as tools to do that, he said.
But this month’s protests showed Georgian Dream miscalculated, analysts say.
Ruling politicians began to back off the bill Wednesday evening, as huge crowds took to the streets, and Thursday’s discussion of the proposal was canceled.
The EU delegation in Georgia welcomed the announcement of the withdrawal, as did Khatia Dekanoidze, a parliament member from the pro-Western United National Movement party.
“Our children managed to achieve this,” she said.
Litvinova reported from Tallinn, Estonia.