Pro-Western supporters protest outside the parliament in Tbilisi Pro-Western supporters protest outside the parliament in Tbilisi  (AFP or licensors)

Georgia's capital rocked by riots over foreign agents' law

Georgia’s parliament votes to drop a controversial bill after a week during which security forces detained some 50 protestors and broke up protests against a "foreign agents" law, injuring several people. Demonstrators feared the legislation would move the former Soviet republic towards Russian-style authoritarian rule.

By Stefan J. Bos

With protests entering their second day, police fired a water cannon at a protestor waving a European Union flag late Wednesday. Security forces also used tear gas and stun grenades as riots rocked Georgia's capital Tbilisi injuring demonstrators and police officers.

Some protestors threw firebombs at police. Scores of people were detained as demonstrators attempted to storm the Parliament. The riots injured both protestors and police officers, authorities and witnesses said.

The protests turned violent after Georgia's Parliament on Tuesday gave its initial backing to a controversial law on "foreign agents" backed by the ruling party.

The legislation would require organizations receiving more than 20 per cent of their funding from overseas to register as "foreign agents" or face substantial fines.

Georgia's government, controlled by the Georgian Dream party, claimed the legislation promotes greater openness about foreign funding and is inspired by an American law dating back to 1938.

But critics said it resembles a 2012 Russian law used to crack down on civil society.  Demonstrators believe similar legislation in Georgia would undermine its chances to join the EU. "As we all know, it has been implemented in Russia," a protesting young man said, referring to the Russian foreign agents' legislation. "It has also been implemented in Belarus. And we don't want to be part of the ex-Soviet Union. We want to be part of the European Union. We want to be pro-West," he added.    

people celebrate the repeal of the foreign agents bill in Tbilisi
people celebrate the repeal of the foreign agents bill in Tbilisi

Parliamentary reading

The law had passed its so-called first parliamentary reading, but lawmakers voted 35-1 against the bill on Friday morning, at a session that lasted just four minutes and featured no discussion. 

The vote came after Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili says she won't sign the legislation. "No one needed this law," she explained in a statement. "It came from nowhere. But maybe it was dictated from Moscow. It needs to go. I said from the first day that I would veto this law. And I will veto it."

More than 60 civil society organizations and media outlets warned they would not comply with the bill.

The president's suggestion that the law was dictated from Moscow sounds familiar to people still remembering Russia's invasion of Georgia 15 years ago.

Like in Ukraine, Moscow also took over land in Georgia raining missiles on late Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin's hometown.

It halted its tanks just outside the capital Tbilisi, then a seat of a defiantly pro-Western government. However, Georgia's current government has faced criticism from observers, who say the former Soviet republic is moving towards authoritarianism.

In June, the EU declined to grant Georgia candidate status alongside Moldova and Ukraine, citing stalled political and judicial reforms.

Listen to the report by Stefan Bos

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10 March 2023, 14:13