Georgian Government Withdraws ‘Foreign Agents’ Bill After Large-Scale Protests
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 42
On March 10, the Georgian Parliament rejected the draft law, “On the Transparency of Foreign Influence,” after its second reading. The controversial bill was initiated in December 2022 by the pro-government “People’s Power” movement and was enthusiastically supported by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party (Interpressnews, March 10). Only a few days before, on March 7, a parliamentary majority had adopted the law with 76 votes, but large-scale protests and the West’s reaction forced the GD authorities to retreat.
In support of the measure, GD speakers had tried to explain that the law does not prohibit nongovernmental organizations—only obliges them to register with Tbilisi. But Georgian society and the opposition were not convinced by these explanations, calling out Moscow’s apparent influence in the process. “This is not a Georgian law, but Putin’s law, which the Russian dictator used to destroy the opposition in Russia,” argued Khatia Dekanoidze, a member of parliament from Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement party who previously served as the head of the Ukrainian National Police, in an interview with this author (Author’s interview, March 3).
During discussions in the media and parliament, the GD party and its allies have often speculated about the United States’ Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which was adopted before World War II to fight against Nazism, fascism and communism at home. However, Georgian expert David Avalishvili from the independent outlet Nation.ge is certain that these speculations are absolutely irrelevant given the realities of American and Georgian democracy. Asking rhetorically, Avalishvili posited: “In America, there are independent courts and a strong civil society, and democratic elections are taking place. What does Georgia have from this [list]?” (Author’s interview, March 10).
For its part, Georgian civil society, including students and women, despite the demagogy of pro-government commentators, unanimously opposed the “Russian law” and took to the streets of Tbilisi in protest. On the evening of March 7, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered near the parliament building. As the demonstrations proceeded, riot police advanced on the protesters walking down Rustaveli Avenue, using tear gas to disperse the crowd. Altogether, 66 people were arrested during the first day of protests. Some politicians were even among those detained, including the leader of the Girchi–More Freedom party, Zurab Japaridze (Civil.ge, March 8).
Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili voiced her support for the protesters: “I am by your side. Today, you represent free Georgia. Georgia, which sees its future in Europe, will not allow anyone to take away this future” (Civil.ge, March 8).
Even with such official statements, initially, the GD authorities did not back down, and the protests continued. Thus, on the night of March 10, even more violent clashes took place on Rustaveli Avenue, in which at least 100 people were injured and 133 were arrested. Afterward, GD officials declared that they “unconditionally withdraw” the controversial bill (Kommersant, March 9).
In an interview with this author on March 10, Georgian parliamentarian Roman Gotsiridze pointed out that the ruling party could not resist the growing wave of protests and pressure from the West, especially the United States. As Gotsiridze underlined, “After the brutal clashes on Rustaveli Avenue, Derek Chollet, counselor of the US State Department, called Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili. … I am sure Chollet talked about sanctions if the use of force against demonstrators continues, including personal sanctions against billionaire Ivanishvili and the possible freezing of his assets in Western banks. Ivanishvili got scared and ordered GD to stop” (Author’s interview, March 10).
Iosif Tsintsadze, the former rector of the Tbilisi Diplomatic Academy, fully agreed with this version of events. “The Americans always support people if those people demonstrate strength and determination to defend their own rights and freedoms,” Tsintsadze asserted. He further underscored that Washington “was obviously ready to introduce not only personal sanctions but also economic sanctions against Georgia, and this would become a nightmare for Irakli Garibashvili’s government” (Author’s interview March 11).
Additionally, Brussels and other European capitals sent similarly harsh statements to the Georgian authorities. This is not surprising as the rhetoric used by GD officials during the adoption of the law was accompanied by accusations against the US and European Union. And the wording of such rhetoric was eerily similar to that of the Russian authorities when they adopted their “foreign agent” law in Moscow. Like the GD authorities, Putin also claimed that Russia “had copied [the law] from FARA” (TASS, March 10).
While the Georgian opposition has won a key victory here, the crisis is not yet over: Currently, the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs is threatening to arrest and bring charges against all demonstrators who resisted the police. David Berdzenishvili, one of the founders of the Republican Party of Georgia, admitted, “The authorities are getting ready for repression, and that means the protests will resume with new force.” Berdzenishvili has little doubt that the problems with democratic transformation in Georgia depend heavily on Ukraine’s victory in the war against Russia (Author’s interview, March 12)
Moscow is unhappy with the Georgian opposition’s success in blocking this measure, and Russian leaders of different levels continue to broadcast anti-Western messages. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov publicly stipulated, “The opposition in Georgia reflects the interests of the West” (Interpressnews, March 10).
On his personal Telegram account, Russian State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin expressed his view that Washington has not allowed Georgia to become a sovereign state: “The draft laws on foreign agents submitted to the Georgian Parliament was unacceptable to the United States, as it aimed to limit the influence of Washington on the domestic political life of the country. By removing it from consideration in the parliament, Georgia lost the chance for sovereignty.” According to the Russian official, Washington used “soft power levers” to push the Georgian people to protest (Interpressnews, March 10).
On March 12, Russian-backed Abkhaz separatists began threatening military maneuvers in the Gali district of Abkhazia. Earlier, the “president” of Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhania, had openly instructed the transfer of law enforcement personnel to an enhanced work regime against the backdrop of unfolding events in Georgia (Kommersant, March 12).
But as the leader of the European Georgia party, Giga Bokeria, emphasized in a conversation with this author, these threatening Moscow-led gestures will not scare anyone: “We must consolidate the democratic resources that young Georgians have demonstrated these days in order to win the 2024 parliamentary elections” (Author’s interview, March 11).
Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, who remains in critical condition in a Georgian prison, posted on social media that he is “really proud” of the Georgian people. Indeed, Saakashvili declared, “Our genetic code is love of freedom. You have fought much harder than Belarusians at the barricades and better than [even] Ukrainians in a number of elements” (Interpressnews, March 10).
Ultimately, Saakashvili’s personal fate largely depends on future developments in Georgia’s domestic politics. And widespread opposition to the GD’s “foreign agents” bill underlines the growing fractures in the ruling party’s hold on power.