Georgia withdraws ‘foreign agents’ bill after days of protests

An EU delegation welcomed the decision to drop the controversial draft law and encouraged Georgia to resume reforms.

Georgia’s governing party announced it is withdrawing a draft law from parliament criticised as potentially stifling media freedom and civil society after days of protests against it in the capital.

The Georgian Dream party said in a statement on Thursday it would “unconditionally withdraw the bill we supported without any reservations”. It cited the need to reduce “confrontation” in society.

The bill would have required Georgian organisations receiving more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents” or face fines. Georgian Dream previously said the law was necessary to unmask critics of the Georgian Orthodox Church, one of the country’s most powerful institutions.

Opponents of the bill, including Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, who said she would veto it if it crossed her desk, have compared it with a 2012 Russian law, which has been used to clamp down on dissent.

The Georgian government says the legislation is modelled on US foreign agent laws, in place since the 1930s.

The bill had angered supporters of Georgian membership in the European Union after EU officials condemned the draft law, and said it would complicate Georgia’s path to joining the bloc. Last year, the EU declined to grant Georgia candidate status alongside Moldova and Ukraine citing stalled political and judicial reforms.

Kakhaber Kemoklidze, from the opposition For Georgia Party, said the reversal was a victory for the Georgian people.

“Eight-five percent of the Georgian society is very European, and the European perspective is written in the Georgian constitution. This law drafted by the ruling party was directly undermining the Georgian constitution,” he told Al Jazeera.

“This withdrawal is a particular result of the society’s extreme anger against what we’ve been facing for the last 48 hours.”

Protesters in Tbilisi brandish placards and a European Union flag
Protesters brandish placards and an EU flag as they demonstrate in front of the Georgian parliament, in Tbilisi on March 7, 2023 [AFP]

An EU delegation in Georgia said on Thursday it welcomed a decision taken by the governing party to withdraw controversial legislation.

“We welcome the announcement by the ruling party to withdraw draft legislation on ‘foreign influence’. We encourage all political leaders in Georgia to resume pro-EU reforms … for Georgia to achieve candidate status,” it said in a statement.

Parliament gave its initial approval on Tuesday but tens of thousands of protesters then gathered outside parliament, and again on Wednesday. Some protesters threw petrol bombs, stones and plastic bottles at police. At least one window in the parliament building was smashed, and a police car was overturned.

Police used tear gas, stun grenades, and water cannon to disperse the crowds after several hours of protest. Georgia’s interior ministry said 77 people were arrested during Tuesday’s protest.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies