Georgia at political crossroads as 'foreign agent' bill draws protests


  • World
  • Monday, 29 Apr 2024

FILE PHOTO: People take part in a protest against a bill on "foreign agents" in Tbilisi, Georgia April 28, 2024. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze/File Photo

TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia faces more protests this week as lawmakers resume debate on a "foreign agents" law that opponents denounce as a Russian-inspired tool to crack down on freedom of speech.

The bill would force organisations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as foreign agents, a term that carries connotations of spying.

It has ignited a political crisis in the polarised South Caucasus country, which has hopes of joining the European Union and was awarded EU candidate status in December.

The EU has repeatedly said the bill - which returns to parliament for its second reading on Tuesday - is a threat to those ambitions. Britain and the United States have also opposed the bill, while Hungary and Russia have defended it.

Thousands of people protested against the bill for days when it passed its first hurdle in parliament in mid-April. Since then, students have been shutting down Tbilisi's main avenue on a nightly basis, facing off against riot police.

A pro-government rally in support of the bill was set to take place outside parliament on Monday night.

Local media have cited a senior ruling party official as saying the party was helping with costs and laying on transport so its supporters could attend the demonstration in the capital, while insisting they would only be there of their own volition.

The government said on April 4 it was reintroducing the foreign agents bill to parliament, after abandoning it last year following protests then.

"Georgia is at a crossroads now, and the outcome of these rallies and these parliamentary elections will decide where Georgia will be heading for the next few years," said Kornely Kakachia, head of the Georgian Institute of Politics think tank.

"It seems like Georgia is now between authoritarianism and the potential to become part of Europe."

'THE RUSSIAN LAW'

Georgia’s opposition has dubbed the bill "the Russian law", comparing it to similar legislation that the Kremlin has used to suppress dissent.

The country, once part of the Soviet Union, has struggled to define its place between Russia and Europe in the turbulent three decades since the collapse of the former superpower. It lost a short war against Russia in 2008.

Kakachia said the coming weeks could be crucial to its future.

He said there was a growing sense among the Georgian public, who polls show overwhelmingly support EU integration, that the ruling Georgian Dream party no longer represented their interests but those of its influential founder, billionaire ex-prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Georgian Dream and its allies say that the foreign agent bill is necessary to promote transparency among NGOs and combat what they call "pseudo-liberal values" imposed by foreigners.

Rati Ionatamishvili, a Georgian Dream lawmaker and head of parliament’s human rights committee said the draft law would protect democracy by providing for "high standards of transparency".

Despite the negative reaction from the EU and other Western countries, Ionatamishvili said the law would bring Georgia’s EU accession closer. He did not specify how, but said western countries had failed to substantiate their criticisms.

Tensions on the street have occasionally boiled over into brawling in Georgia’s often-rowdy parliament. During committee hearings on the bill on April 15, opposition MP Aleko Elisashvili tore across the floor of the chamber and punched Georgian Dream faction leader Mamuka Mdinaradze in the face.

In an interview with Reuters, Elisashvili compared ruling party MPs to Georgians who joined Lenin's Bolsheviks after Soviet forces took control of their country in 1921 following a brief spell of independence.

"I looked at those traitors standing at the parliamentary despatch box and couldn’t hold myself back any more," he said.

Now joining the protesters outside parliament nightly, Elisashvili believes that the situation is ripe for the government’s ouster, along the lines of Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution.

"If the government had even an ounce of brains and wisdom they would drop this bill, the situation would calm down, and they could make it to the elections," he said.

"But whatever happens, these people will not stay in power."

(Reporting by Felix Light, editing by Mark Trevelyan and Barbara Lewis)

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