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7 Mar, 2023 20:33

Georgians riot over ‘foreign agent’ law

Attacked by Molotov cocktails, police in Tbilisi used tear gas and water cannons against demonstrators
Georgians riot over ‘foreign agent’ law

Thousands of protesters in Tbilisi clashed with the police on Tuesday over a proposed bill on foreign agents that critics claim has been modeled after a Russian law. Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili has endorsed the protest while visiting the US.

According to local media reports, police used rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons against the protesters. The authorities said appropriate force was used after riot officers were attacked with incendiary projectiles.

Opposition activists have accused the government of wanting to pass a “Russian-style” law on foreign agents, requiring any organization receiving more than 20% of its funding from abroad to register as such. The Russian law, enacted in 2012, was itself based on the American Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), passed in 1938.

Journalist and podcaster Sopo Japaridze previously explained that the government is actually considering two proposals – one that targets foreign-funded NGOs specifically, and the other that is patterned after FARA and is “actually more dangerous since it’s too broad.”

She criticized the “Russian law” narrative, saying the opposition and civil society leaders used it to stir up anger but “painted themselves in the corner and are unable to articulate better arguments.” 

“Georgian people are out in the streets to defend the country’s European future amid [the] ruling party’s adoption of Russian foreign agent law. Georgia’s future will be European,” tweeted NGO activist Katie Shoshiashvili – formerly of Transparency International’s chapter in Tbilisi – sharing a video of a woman waving the EU flag against a water cannon.

Some Ukrainian media outlets described the bill as a “Kremlin-style law.” Interior Ministry adviser Anton Gerashchenko dubbed it “similar to Russian law.”

Visegrad 24, a Polish-based Twitter account promoting pro-Ukrainian and anti-Russian narratives, claimed the events in Tbilisi were “starting to look more and more like a ‘Euromaidan’ event,” referring to the US-backed 2014 color revolution in Ukraine.

President Salome Zurabishvili addressed the nation from the US, where she is currently visiting, voicing support for the protest and vowing to veto the bill if it passes. Zurabishvili was elected in 2018 with the backing of the ruling Georgian Dream party, but has since fallen out with party leader Irakli Kobakhidze and PM Irakli Garibashvili.

“The Georgian Parliamentary promotion of Kremlin-inspired laws is incompatible with the clear desire of the people of Georgia for European integration and its democratic development,” the US embassy in Tbilisi said in a statement. The bill “raises real questions” about Tbilisi’s commitment to “Euro-Atlantic integration,” the embassy said, adding that if it passes, it would “damage Georgia’s relations with its strategic partners and undermine the important work of many Georgian organizations helping fellow citizens.”

Washington might impose sanctions against the Georgian government over the proposed law and the handling of the protests, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Tuesday.

Tbilisi has found itself under tremendous pressure from Washington and Kiev to open a “second front” in the conflict against Russia, but Georgia has so far resisted doing so. A number of Georgians have volunteered for the Ukrainian military, but the government maintains its neutrality.

The US backed the 'Rose Revolution' in Tbilisi in 2004, bringing to power Mikhail Saakashvili. After Georgian Dream won the 2012 election, Saakashvili fled the country and worked for the Ukrainian government for several years. He returned to Georgia in October 2021, and was promptly arrested after calling for an uprising against the government.

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