Massive protests prompt Georgia to withdraw Russian-style 'foreign agents' law

Tens of thousands of Georgians have been protesting for two days against what they see as a lurch into authoritarianism by the government in Tbilisi.

TBILISI, Georgia — Tens of thousands of Georgians occupied the main thoroughfare of the capital, Tbilisi, for the second night in a row Wednesday, holding EU flags and posters protesting a Russian-style draft law that would label some nongovernmental groups and media outlets “foreign agents.” The law is seen as an attempt to suppress civil society and amplify the government’s propaganda that Western partners are not acting in the interests of Georgians.

A street protester in a mask waves a Georgian national flag, with a red cross superimposed with four smaller red crosses, in front of an upturned vehicle and a burning barricade, with protesters standing at a distance.
A man waves a Georgian flag in front of a burning barricade keeping out other protesters, not far from the Parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Thursday. (Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP)

Some protesters stormed the barricades in front of the Parliament, overturned police cars and blocked the streets. Young people were seen dancing and singing in front of riot police.

Authorities have been using water cannons and tear gas against demonstrators, many of whom they have also arrested. Despite attempts to clear the streets, protesters kept going back until dawn.

After the backlash, the government decided Thursday to withdraw the controversial bill, stating that “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.” Protests are nevertheless set to continue for a third night.

A powerful jet from a water cannon soaks protesters holding an EU flag, which shows a circle of 12 stars on a blue background.
Police use a water cannon to disperse protesters holding an EU flag in front of the Parliament in Tbilisi on Tuesday. (Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock )

At the heart of the controversy is the Georgian Parliament's proposal of two bills that would require nongovernmental organizations and media organizations to register as “agents of foreign influence” if 20% of their funds come from abroad. Failure to comply would result in fines. The second “foreign agent” bill also included individuals and legal entities, with more severe penalties, including prison time.

Russia, which has a similar law, looms large in the debate. In 2008 Russia invaded Georgia, a small, mountainous country with about 3.7 million people, and set up breakaway republics loyal to Moscow in South Abkhazia and Ossetia. It was a tactic that Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, would repeat in Ukraine years later.

A group of protesters hold up a metal barricade against serried ranks of police with transparent shields and face guards.
Protesters clash with police in Tbilisi on Wednesday. (David Mdzinarishvili/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The Georgian government has leveraged Georgians’ fear of another armed conflict with their stronger neighbor. Portraying Ukraine as abandoned by the West, the ruling party has styled itself as steering a pragmatic course in avoiding taking Georgia down the same path.

Despite domestic and international calls that it not adopt the bill, Georgian Dream, the party that controls the government, passed the bill in its first hearing on Tuesday as citizens protested outside Parliament.

“The future of our country does not belong and will no longer belong to foreign agents or servants of foreign countries,” Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said on Tuesday, defending the legislation.“The future of our country and our people belongs to patriots.”

Against the illuminated colonnades of the Parliament, protesters gather.
Protesters wave Georgian, Ukrainian and European flags outside Parliament on Wednesday. (Vano Shlamov/AFP via Getty Images)

Georgians are not backing down, and many critics are arguing that the laws pull the country away from its post-Soviet tilt toward liberal democracy and the EU.

“This protest is not just about law,” Vasil Matitaishvili, the campaign manager of European Georgia, an opposition party, told Yahoo News. (Disclosure: The author of this piece is the stepdaughter of the party’s founder.) “It’s about the choice of every generation of Georgians and our identity. Western civilization, the free world, is our home. This Putin-inspired law is an ugly finale of this government's persistent, years-long trajectory.”

The U.S. has been similarly blunt. The U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi called the legislation “a dark day for Georgia’s democracy.”

Protesters hold placards saying: We Are Europe.
Protesters at a demonstration Wednesday in Tbilisi. (Vano Shlamov/AFP via Getty Images)

In a statement, the U.S. Embassy further said the “Kremlin-inspired laws” are “incompatible with the people of Georgia’s clear desire for European integration and its democratic development. Pursuing these laws will damage Georgia’s relations with its strategic partners and undermine the important work of so many Georgian organizations working to help their fellow citizens. The process and the draft laws raise real questions about the ruling party’s commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration.”

The Georgian Dream party came to power in 2012 promising to normalize relations with Russia, and its electoral program openly stated that Georgia should not serve as a point of confrontation between the West and Russia.

Bidzina Ivanishvili, the Georgian oligarch who heads the party and was prime minister at the time, adopted a policy of strategic ambiguity: advocating EU membership while also avoiding antagonizing Moscow. All the while, the party shuttered independent media and arrested political opponents.

Bidzina Ivanishvili raises his fist in the air, as his supporters do the same.
Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the ruling party, Georgian Dream, celebrates exit poll results after parliamentary elections in Tbilisi on Oct. 31, 2020. (Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The government’s balancing act appears to have stumbled, however. Last year, the EU gave official candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova but said Tbilisi must first implement a series of reforms.

In a statement this week, the EU’s diplomatic agency called the proposed laws “a very bad development for Georgia and its people.”

It added: “The European Union urges Georgia to uphold its commitment to the promotion of democracy, the rule of law and human rights, and recalls the right of people to a peaceful protest.”