Protests against agent law: The “Georgian Dream” gives way for the time being


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Anti-agent law protests
The “Georgian Dream” gives way for the time being

A guest contribution by Stephan Malerius

First the Georgian government prefers the so-called agent law, then withdraws it. But this seems to be a game for time. And now the demonstrators have another reason to take to the streets.

In Georgia, March 8 is a holiday on which women are traditionally given mainly flower gifts. This year it was different in the capital Tbilisi: instead of receiving flowers, many young Georgian women were showered with tear gas and water cannons. A large, peaceful demonstration, which was mainly supported by students, was violently broken up during the night by brutal intervention by special police units.

The background to this is the passing of the so-called agent law, which the governing party, the “Georgian Dream”, had pushed through parliament in the first reading the day before. The law, introduced in February by a right-wing splinter group of the ruling party, would require NGOs, the media and possibly even individuals who receive at least 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as “foreign influence agents.”

Like in the US? Or like in Russia?

There has been widespread international criticism of the law in recent weeks. The European Union, the Council of Europe, numerous embassies, even the UN, have said the project is harmful to international development cooperation in Georgia, runs counter to the country’s declared ambitions last year to become an EU candidate country, and is an expression of increasing authoritarianism tendencies and a great democratic step backwards. “When NGOs are stigmatized as foreign agents in Georgia, many people with disabilities, internally displaced persons, minorities, the elderly, victims of domestic violence or other vulnerable groups are left without effective support,” the UN said in a statement.

In response to international criticism, the government tried to paint the law as “Western-inspired”. In the USA, for example, there is FARA, the “Foreign Agents Registrations Act”, which is an analogous legal regulation, and the initiative is generally only about legitimate transparency, especially for the part of civil society that is critical of the government and controlled from abroad. However, this interpretation did not catch on, and at the beginning of the week the international protest also reached the broader Georgian society. Numerous artists, scientists and athletes joined the criticism. Khvicha Kvaratschelia, star striker at SSC Napoli and currently one of the most prominent Georgians, posted on Facebook that Georgia’s future is in Europe. For this he received over 60,000 likes within a few hours.

The government’s initiative was dubbed the “Russian agent law” on social media. This refers to a law that President Putin, newly elected for a third term, had passed in Russia in 2012 and which in the following years formed the legal basis for the gradual closure of practically all independent NGOs in the country. Not surprisingly, the spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry criticized the EU for “crossing the line of decency” and “putting pressure on Georgian citizens” in connection with the agent law in Georgia.

133 arrests

The first reading of the law was originally scheduled for Thursday, but after civil society called for a large demonstration on that day, the government pushed the vote forward to Tuesday at short notice, signaling that it was in a great hurry for the law to come into force to put. During the vote on Tuesday, there was a spontaneous demonstration in front of Parliament, which was violently broken up late in the evening with water cannons and tear gas. The image of a woman resolutely waving a European flag in a jet of water went viral.

The demonstrations continued on an even larger scale the next day. Now it was mainly young people who declared that their future was in Europe and that Georgia was not Russia. “No to the Russian law” was the dominant slogan of the evening. After the Georgian national anthem and the European anthem were played, the police asked the demonstrators to end the rally, and when that didn’t happen, the gathering was broken up with brute force. During the clashes, a total of 133 demonstrators were arrested on both days of the protest.

Under the impact of the protests, the ruling party announced on Thursday morning that it would withdraw the law. But this seems to be a game for time. They wanted to explain the law better, it said. However, it sounded as if nothing should be changed about the substance. It remains to be seen whether the Georgian people will believe the explanations of the “Georgian Dream”. In any case, people now have another reason to protest: not only against the agent law, but also against excessive police violence.

Stephan Malerius heads the South Caucasus regional program of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Tbilisi.

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