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Georgia foreign agents bill draws protesters onto the streets

  • By Rayhan Démytrie
  • BBC South Caucasus Correspondent

Legend, The protests have now become a daily spectacle in Tbilisi and show few signs of abating.

Over the past ten days, thousands of Georgians – many in their late teens or early 20s – have brought traffic to a standstill in the capital, Tbilisi.

They are demanding that the government abandon plans to introduce a controversial bill – dubbed the “foreign agents” law – that many say was inspired by authoritarian legislation that neighboring Russia uses to crush dissent.

On April 17, Parliament passed the bill at first reading – the first of three hurdles it must clear before becoming law.

“I am here for my European future,” says Gvantsa “Pertso”, 23, sitting with her friends next to the Georgian parliament, the gathering place for the rallies.

She is one of the members of Georgian Generation Z who marched through Tbilisi with European and Georgian flags draped around their shoulders, holding banners and chanting “No to Russian law!”

Under the bill proposed by the ruling Georgian Dream party – in power for 12 years – NGOs and independent media that receive more than 20% of their funding from foreign donors would have to register as organizations “carrying the interests of a foreign power.”

They would also be monitored by the Ministry of Justice and could be forced to share sensitive information – or face hefty fines of up to 25,000 GEL ($9,400; £7,500).

Given that NGOs and civil society organizations in Georgia are involved in election observation, protesters also fear that the bill will be used to crush critical voices in the run-up to the upcoming parliamentary elections. later this year.

Parallels have been drawn with an authoritarian bill that came into force in Russia in 2012 and which the Russian government has since used to marginalize anti-Kremlin voices, including those of prominent cultural figures, media organizations and advocacy groups. civil society.

Legend, Protesters fear the bill will crush critical voices ahead of this year’s parliamentary elections.

Many also fear that such a law could sidetrack Georgia from its path to coveted EU membership which, a poll by the US National Democratic Institute shows, is supported by almost 80% of Georgians.

Georgia was granted EU candidate status in December 2023, but Brussels and Washington have said adopting the foreign agents law would harm Georgia’s European ambitions.

A number of EU leaders have warned that the proposed bill is “incompatible” with European norms and values, including European Council President Charles Michel, who said the law would “further push Georgia away from the EU and no would bring her closer.”

But Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze remains firm.

He accused NGOs of twice attempting to organize revolutions in Georgia, promoting “gay propaganda” and attacking the Georgian Orthodox Church.

He and his government insist the bill aims to ensure transparency and reject the idea that it is contrary to European values ​​– or that Russia is behind the legislation.

In fact, Georgian Dream has sought to distance itself from Russia over the bill, categorically rejecting any perceived similarities to the Russian law as “disinformation” and denouncing Russian messages about the protests in Georgia as inflammatory.

Legend, Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze insists bill aims to ensure transparency

Tamar Oniani, representative of the NGO Georgian Young Lawyers Association, is skeptical. She protested against the bill, which she said was aimed at “suppressing civil society” and “in the interests of Russia.”

“This is why we are here,” she told the BBC on the sidelines of a protest. “We think this is a foreign policy issue for Georgia, because it would move us from the EU to Russia.”

Anna Dolidze of the opposition For the People party says the law is a Russian “test of allegiance” for the Georgian Dream party, whose task is “to pass this law and remain gently authoritarian… silencing indirectly the critics.”

Referring to similar legislation passed by neighboring Turkey, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan, Dolidze said: “Pro-Russian countries in the so-called Russian neighborhood were asked to adopt this law… in order to create a divide between them and Europe. “.

In Kyrgyzstan, the NGO Open Society Foundations recently announced that it would end its activities after three decades of presence in the country following the introduction of a draft law on foreign agents. The new law risks “having an extremely negative impact on civil society, human rights defenders and the media in Kyrgyzstan,” the NGO said in a statement.

For its part, Russia has denied the allegations of interference.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said protests against the Georgian government’s bill were provoked by foreign forces who wanted to stoke anti-Russian sentiment in the country, but denied any Russian links and this bill.

Analysts disagree. Sopo Gelava, a disinformation specialist at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Lab, says pro-Kremlin Facebook pages have spread claims that the West is behind the protests and pushed the narrative that the United States ” are planning a coup” in Georgia before the elections. October parliamentary elections.

“At least five pages I’m looking at right now contain a sponsored article claiming there is a secret plan to overthrow the government,” Mr. Gelava said.

Legend, EU leaders warned that the proposed bill was “incompatible” with European norms and values.

Protesters in Tbilisi have no doubt that this is a pivotal moment and continue to take to the streets to express their anger at the government. The protests have now become a daily spectacle in Tbilisi and show few signs of abating.

“Nine out of ten people on the street will say that our destination is Europe,” says student Andria Chilaidze. “I don’t know why (government officials) are doing this.”

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, who is in bitter conflict with the government, told the BBC that questions remained over who might be behind her new push to pass the law.

“Was it in Georgia or beyond our borders, was this decision taken in Moscow?” she asked.

“This is the main question of transparency that the Georgian population is asking.”

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Gn world

jack colman

With a penchant for words, jack began writing at an early age. As editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper, he honed his skills telling impactful stories. Smith went on to study journalism at Columbia University, where he graduated top of his class.After interning at the New York Times, jack landed a role as a news writer. Over the past decade, he has covered major events like presidential elections and natural disasters. His ability to craft compelling narratives that capture the human experience has earned him acclaim.Though writing is his passion, jack also enjoys hiking, cooking and reading historical fiction in his free time. With an eye for detail and knack for storytelling, he continues making his mark at the forefront of journalism.
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