‘Foreign agents’ law: Why are protests taking place in Georgia? 

A ‘foreign agent’ bill reminiscent of a controversial law passed in Russia has triggered protests in Tbilisi.

Thousands of people have taken to the streets of Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, for a second consecutive day to protest against a controversial “foreign agents” draft law.

The latest demonstration on Wednesday came a day after the bill was passed in a first reading in parliament. At least 66 people were arrested on Tuesday evening as protests against the proposed legislation turned violent.

Here is what you need to know.

What does the law entail?

The draft law “On Transparency of Foreign Influence” officially targets the disclosure of money flows from abroad, but critics feared it was a way for the government to crack down on opposing voices.

The proposed legislation stipulates that organisations such as media outlets could be classified as “foreign agents” if they receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad.

Critics have pointed to a similar law passed in Russia, where all organisations or individuals receiving financial support from abroad, or under some form of “foreign influence”, are declared “foreign agents”.

Ghia Nodia, Georgia’s former minister of education, told Al Jazeera that the law was likely to stifle press freedom in a country where a large share of the media is controlled by the government.

“A large part of independent media in Georgia gets outside support. The government says that it’s just for transparency but this draft law models the Russian law, and in Russia, the legislation was a step towards repressing independent media,” he said.

Member of parliament Khatia Dekanoidze told Al Jazeera that “Georgia has a very vibrant civil society strengthening democracy and rule of law” that gets funding and technical assistance from the European Union and the United Nations.

Georgia applied for EU membership together with Ukraine and Moldova days after Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year.

In June, EU leaders granted formal candidate status to Kyiv and Chisinau but said Tbilisi must implement a number of reforms first.

Limiting funding opportunities to civil society groups would be an obstacle to joining the European Union, Dekanoidze said.

What is the latest?

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, who is also the chair of Georgian Dream, the party leading the government and parliament’s largest force, has defended the bill, saying it would help root out those working against the interests of the country and the powerful Georgian Orthodox Church. He has also accused Georgia’s “radical opposition” of stirring up protesters to commit “unprecedented violence” during Tuesday’s rallies, according to Georgian news agencies.

But Salome Zourabichvili, the president of Georgia, addressed demonstrators and assured them of her support. The pro-Europe leader said lawmakers who voted for the draft law had violated the Constitution, pledging to veto it if it was passed by parliament.

Protests kicked off again on Wednesday afternoon with a march to mark International Women’s Day, which is a public holiday in Georgia,

Demonstrators carried Georgian and EU flags down the central Rustaveli Avenue towards parliament, shouting “No to the Russian law.”

The interior ministry has accused protesters of petty hooliganism and resisting state authority, Georgian media reported on Wednesday.

“People started an organised attack on the parliament building, throwing so-called ‘Molotov cocktails’ and fireworks,” the ministry said.

Up to 50 police officers were wounded in Tuesday’s clashes, the ministry added, with several still hospitalised.

What was the international reaction?

In a joint statement on Wednesday, the foreign ministers of the Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – all of which were under control the Soviet Union’s control during the Cold War years – expressed concern about the draft law.

“We call on the Parliament of Georgia to responsibly assess the real interests of the country and refrain from decisions that may undermine aspirations of Georgia’s people to live in a democratic country which is advancing towards the EU and NATO,” wrote the chief diplomats of the three countries, which are members of both organisations.

At the same time, they called on the Georgian government to respect the people’s right to peaceful protest.

In recent years, Georgian authorities have faced mounting international criticism for a perceived backsliding on democracy, seriously damaging Tbilisi’s ties with Brussels.


Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies