TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Following days of massive protests, Georgia’s governing party said Thursday it would withdraw draft legislation that opponents warned would stifle dissent and curtail media freedoms, ushering in Russian-style repression.
The bill would have required media and nongovernmental organizations that receive over 20% of their funding from foreign sources to register as “agents of foreign influence.” Its opponents argued that it was inspired by a similar law used by authorities in Russia to silence critics and could hinder Georgia’s aspirations of one day joining NATO and the European Union.
Protests against the bill began last week, but swelled in recent days to bring tens of thousands of people to the streets of the capital, Tbilisi — and were met with tear gas and water cannons. The Interior Ministry said 133 demonstrators have been arrested.
Citing the “controversy in society” the bill triggered, the governing Georgian Dream party and its allies said they would withdraw the proposed law. But that process might be complicated since it has already passed its first of three required readings.
A group of activists spearheading the protests said demonstrations would resume on Thursday evening to ensure the bill is actually abandoned. They are also demanding the release of those arrested.
Georgia’s president, Salome Zourabichvili, had already said she would veto the bill — a move that indicated a growing divide between her and the Georgian Dream. Zourabichvili does not belong to any party, but the ruling one backed her candidacy in the 2018 presidential election. Since assuming office, however, she has increasingly disagreed with their decisions and policies, especially on foreign affairs.
Opposition parties have in recent years accused the Georgian Dream of pursuing pro-Russian policies while claiming to be Western-oriented. The party’s opponents charge that its founder, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili who made his fortune in Russia, has continued calling the shots in the Black Sea nation of 3.7 million, even though he currently doesn’t hold a government job.
The party has repeatedly denied any links to Russia or leaning towards it.
Though they agreed to withdraw the bill, the Georgian Dream party and its allies alleged that public opinion had been misled about the proposal.
“The bill was labeled falsely as a ‘Russian law’ and its adoption in the first reading was presented in the eyes of a part of the public as a departure from the European course,” lawmakers said.
The proposed law did appear similar to one enacted in Russia in 2012 that has been used to shut down or discredit organizations critical of government.
The Georgian bill’s authors said it would make clear when the work of entities is financed by representatives of foreign states — but opponents saw it as a step toward introducing the same heavy-handed tactics that Russian President Vladimir Putin has used to crack down on dissent.
Two European Parliament members who handled the body’s relations with Georgia, Maria Kaljurand and Sven Mikser, indicated that concerns the controversial bill could harm Georgia’s EU prospects were well-founded. The proposed law “goes directly against the Georgian authorities’ declared ambition to receive candidate status for EU membership,” they said.
Ruling politicians began to back off the bill on Wednesday evening, as tens of thousands of people took to the streets. They announced that Thursday’s discussions of the proposal would be canceled, and Parliament speaker Shalva Papuashvili asked for the measure to be assessed by the Venice Commission. The commission advises the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights body, on constitutional matters.
The EU delegation in Georgia welcomed the announcement of the withdrawal on Thursday, as did Khatia Dekanoidze, a parliament member from the pro-Western United National Movement party. She said that “our children managed to achieve this.”