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Georgia withdraws controversial foreign-agent bill after protests


After two days of mass street protests, Georgia’s ruling Dream party withdrew a bill Thursday that would require some nongovernmental groups and independent media outlets to register as “foreign agents.”

The bill was opposed by thousands of protesters who clashed with law enforcement outside the Parliament building in Tbilisi over the past two days, likening it to a law the Kremlin has used to shut down many prominent human rights organizations, as well as targeting media and activists.

Many worried that the bill would threaten the country’s chances of joining the European Union and it also fueled fears that the government is sliding back into Moscow’s orbit.

Georgian opposition leaders said Wednesday that there was no technical procedure to withdraw a bill after it had passed the first reading and that it would have to be voted down in a subsequent ballot later this month. The ruling party said the decision to withdraw the bill was made to maintain “peace.”

In Georgia, two days of protests over ‘foreign influence’ bill

Protesters initially welcomed the news of the government’s decision, but said that they remained cautious and alert in case of a reversal. Another protest has been called for Thursday.

“This is definitely a positive thing that the government changed their mind, it is just unfortunate that this had to happen through the demonstration of power,” Vakho Pavlenishvili, a protester, said. “Now it is very important to follow up on this progress and change the way this government approaches people. The government must see that this is a democratic state and they have to consider what their people think.”

Another protester, Levan Ghambashidze, said distrust in the government remains high.

“We have had promises several times from this government — on elections and other political issues — and they have not fulfilled them. So right now we are wondering if this is a trick,” he added. “It is possible they are waiting for the protests to cool down and they will try to introduce this law again.”

In 2021, the ruling Georgian Dream withdrew from an E.U.-brokered agreement which sought to end the political deadlock in the country, drawing ire from Georgians and Western officials alike.

Meanwhile, the Dream party blasted its critics, saying the bill was presented in a “negative light” to mislead the public by likening it to the Russian law. The party said it would organize meetings to explain the rationale behind the bill once the tension had died down. It also added that the demonstrators indulged in “illegal” acts, referring to the violence in this week’s protests.

“Of course it’s a victory, but it’s an intermediate victory,” Gigi Ugulava, the former mayor of Tbilisi, told independent Russian television station Dozhd. He criticized comments from Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the Dream party, who said that the government would continue to promote the necessity of the bill, even as he announced its withdrawal.

The E.U. delegation in Georgia welcomed the announcement of the bill’s withdrawal. “We encourage all political leaders in GE to resume pro-EU reforms, in an inclusive & constructive way and in line with the 12 priorities for Georgia to achieve candidate status,” the bloc said in a tweet Thursday.

The ruling government, led by Prime Minister Irakly Garibashvili of the Dream party, has routinely clashed with Western officials who have expressed concern over the country’s democratic backsliding. Many in Georgia’s opposition believe that the ruling party is increasingly aligning itself with Moscow, and that the foreign influence bill is the latest indication of this.

In comments Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted that “nothing was inspired by the Kremlin” and that Russia had no role in the unrest.

The United States and European nations had urged the country to withdraw the proposed law for being incompatible with democratic values and norms. Georgia’s president, Salome Zurabishvili, also opposed the bill and said she would veto it.

The legislation, which cleared an initial vote Tuesday, would require all nongovernmental organizations and media groups that derive more than 20 percent of their revenue from abroad to register with the government as “agents of foreign influence,” subjecting them to additional scrutiny and opening them up to the possibility of harsh penalties.

Videos from local media outlets Wednesday showed tens of thousands of demonstrators chanting “No to the Russian law!” with many holding up E.U., Georgian and Ukrainian flags.

More than 100 people were arrested, the Georgian Interior Ministry said Thursday, adding that the protesters smashed shop windows and set fire to bins on the road. Police deployed water cannons and tear gas to disperse protesters, images showed. Human Rights Watch said it saw no “reason” for the use of force against “peaceful” protesters.

Figures from opposition parties, speaking after the bill was withdrawn, said protests would continue until the government had formally denounced the bill altogether and had released all those detained during protests.

A recent poll shows that majority of the country supports joining the European Union, but its application last year remains stuck. Georgia was asked to pursue political reforms for it to be granted candidate status.

*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.