Georgia withdraws ‘foreign influence’ bill that sparked angry protests



Georgia’s ruling party has withdrawn a controversial “foreign influence” bill after two nights of protests in Tbilisi, as Moscow expressed concern over the situation and urged Russian citizens to exercise caution.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Thursday advised Russian citizens living in neighboring countries to be vigilant.

“This is our neighboring state and despite the fact that we do not have such relations with Georgia, the situation there cannot cause us concern,” Peskov said. He advised Russian citizens to “avoid living in these areas” and to be “extremely careful”.

Asked at a press briefing whether Russian law had inspired the Georgian bill, Peskov said the Kremlin had “nothing to do with it” and pointed to a law against so-called foreign agents in the US.

The unrest in Georgia was fueled by fears that the law would drive a wedge between the Caucasian nation and Europe.

The announcement that the bill would be rejected, carried by the country’s public broadcaster, came hours after thousands gathered outside the Georgian parliament for a second night of rallies, some clashing with police.

Protesters could be seen waving the flag of the European Union – which Georgia applied to join last year – and Georgian flags alongside those of the United States and Ukraine.

Under the controversial law, organizations deriving 20% ​​or more of their annual revenue from abroad will have to register as “foreign agents” or face heavy fines – a proposal that rights experts warn of, civil society in the country. will have a chilling effect on and damage it. democracy

Critics said it was consistent with similar laws used by Russia to suppress dissent and political opposition, and the EU’s office in the former Soviet republic welcomed the announcement of the bill’s rejection.

“We encourage all political leaders of GE (Georgia) to resume pro-EU reforms, in an inclusive and constructive way,” the office wrote on its official Twitter account.

Social media videos from Wednesday night showed some protesters throwing stones at the building’s windows and trying to break through a security barrier, prompting police to deploy water cannons and tear gas.

Georgia’s Interior Ministry said it had arrested 66 more people for joining the protests.

“Participants of the rally violated public order and law and order throughout the night at various places and resisted the police officers,” the statement said.

The announcement brings the total number of people arrested in connection with the protests on Tuesday and Wednesday to 142.

There was a discussion in the Parliament of Georgia Two billsAccording to Giorgi Gogia, associate director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch.

The first bill would require non-governmental groups and organizations including print, online and broadcast media to register as “foreign agents” if they derive 20 percent or more of their annual income from abroad.

The second expanded the scope of “agents of foreign influence” to include individuals and increased the penalty for failure to comply with fines to up to five years in prison.

Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream Party, said on Wednesday that the law would help root out those working against the country’s interests and the powerful Georgian Orthodox Church, Reuters reported.

He criticized Georgia’s “radical opposition” for inciting the protesters.

But Gogia said the bills are a clear threat to human rights in Georgia.

People hold the flags of the European Union, Ukraine and the USA during a demonstration outside the Parliament of Georgia in Tbilisi on March 8, 2023.

“They threaten to marginalize and discredit critical voices in the country. The threat is real,” he said. “Under the guise of transparency, recent statements by Georgian authorities strongly suggest that if adopted, the law will be weaponized to further stigmatize and punish independent groups, media and critical voices in the country.”

Russia-aligned Belarus has had a citizenship law to this effect since 2002.

According to Human Rights Watch, in December 2022, the Belarusian parliament passed amendments to the law that would enable the government to target political opposition members, activists, and other critics in exile.

The draft law would allow the president to strip Belarusians of their citizenship abroad, even if they have no other.

Georgia, which won its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, has long struck a delicate balance between the pro-European sentiment of its citizens and the geopolitical ambitions of its powerful neighbor, Russia.

A Tuesday statement from the EU warned that the law would be “incompatible with EU values ​​and standards” and could have a “serious impact” on the bloc’s relations with Georgia.

Georgian President Salome Zurabichvili said she believed the bill “looks too much like Russian politics” and vowed to veto it.

“There is no need for this law, it comes from anywhere. Nobody asked for it,” Zourbichvili told CNN’s Isa Soares on Wednesday.

Zourbichvili had vowed to veto the bill, but supreme executive power rests with the government led by Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili.

Georgia applied for EU membership in March 2022. Although it was not granted candidacy status, the European Council expressed readiness to grant it if Georgia implements certain reforms.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Wednesday that the bill was “Kremlin-inspired.”

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy directly addressed Georgian protesters, thanking them for raising their country’s flag during Wednesday’s demonstrations and wishing them “democratic success.”

“I want to thank everyone who is holding Ukrainian flags in the squares and streets of Georgia these days,” Zelensky said.

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