Georgia withdraws ‘foreign agents’ bill after protests

Georgia’s ruling party said Thursday it would drop a bill on “foreign agents” after two nights of violent protests against what opponents say is a Russian-inspired authoritarian change that threatens the country’s hopes of joining the European Union.

The ruling Georgian Dream party said in a statement that “we will unconditionally withdraw the bill we supported without any reservations.” It cited the need to reduce “conflict” in society, while condemning the “lies” being told about the bill by the “radical opposition”.

However, opposition leaders said the protest would resume after Thursday. Giga Lemonjava, a representative of the Droa party, said they demand that the government formally condemn the bill and release all those detained during the protests.

The Black Sea nation of 3.7 million people has seen frequent political upheaval since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, including a peaceful “Rose Revolution” in 2003 and a devastating war against Russia five years later.

Georgian companies receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad must register as “foreign agents” or face fines.

Government officials said the proposals were necessary to root out “foreign influence” and “spies” from Georgia’s political scene, arguing that Georgians have a right to know who is funding non-governmental organizations working there.

The opposition said it was a local version of a Russian law that President Vladimir Putin has used for more than a decade to crush dissent.

“This is a Russian law that must be withdrawn and under no circumstances go to parliament,” said Nika Obolatze, a 32-year-old Tbilisi resident.

‚ÄúThose who proposed the law are responsible for these confusions. “Because 90% of Georgians support European integration, nothing should stop it,” he added.

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Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was “concerned” by the events in Tbilisi and added that the Georgian bill had nothing to do with Russian laws.

“The Kremlin did not promote anything there, the Kremlin had nothing to do with it. … If I understand it correctly, one version was very similar to the equivalent law in the United States,” Peskov said.

The EU’s representative for Georgia welcomed the decision to withdraw the bill, writing on Twitter: “We encourage all political leaders in Georgia to resume pro-EU reforms in an inclusive and constructive manner.”

Parliament gave preliminary approval to the draft law on Tuesday, but tens of thousands of protesters gathered outside parliament, with some throwing petrol bombs, stones and plastic bottles at police. Dozens were arrested, officials said.

Police used tear gas, water cannons and stun grenades to disperse the second night of protests on Wednesday.

The bill has deepened a rift between Georgian Dream, which holds a parliamentary majority, and pro-European President Salomi Zourabichvili, who has defected from the party since being elected with its support in 2018.

Sourabichvili had said he would veto the bill, although parliament could override it.

Georgia’s opposition has long criticized the Georgian Dream as too close to Moscow. Anti-Russian sentiment is high in Georgia over Moscow’s support for separatists in the two breakaway regions, which led to a brief war between the two countries in 2008.

The bill angered supporters of Georgian membership of the EU after officials in Brussels condemned the draft law, saying it would complicate Tbilisi’s path to joining the bloc.

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Polls show a steady majority of Georgians in favor of joining the EU and NATO. All major parties, including Georgian Dream, support the idea.

Last year, Brussels refused to grant EU candidate status to Georgia along with Moldova and Ukraine, citing stalled political and judicial reforms.

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