- Written by Rehan Dimitri and Paul Kirby
- in Tbilisi and London
Police used water cannon and tear gas against protesters in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, for a second night.
Crowds are furious over a controversial Russian-style law, which would classify non-governmental and media groups as “foreign agents” if they receive more than 20% of their money from abroad.
On Wednesday evening, the police pushed back the demonstrators, who removed an iron barrier outside Parliament.
The crowds were ordered to disperse and some people were injured.
Pictures from Georgian television showed hundreds of riot police in the streets late Wednesday night, wearing helmets and carrying shields. At least one police car has been overturned.
Clouds of tear gas rose over the streets around the parliament building as police tried to disperse the protests.
Earlier, tens of thousands of people joined the second day of protests.
Held outside parliament, lawmakers on Tuesday supported the first reading of the controversial new law, which drew widespread international condemnation.
A similar law has been used in Russia to severely limit freedom of the press and suppress civil society.
“We think our government is under Russian influence and this is very bad for our future,” said Lizzie, one of many students participating in the protests.
Protesters fear that the new law, if passed, will harm the country’s hopes of joining the European Union.
Another protester, Thekla Tevdorashvili, told the BBC: “People are really angry because it’s not about one specific thing, it’s about the future of Georgia and how we function as a country.”
“Everyone is really against this and I think that is why they are so afraid and that is why the government is trying to use everything they can against people to silence us but we are not going to be silenced.”
In a statement, the United States expressed its solidarity with the protesters and called on the Georgian government to allow peaceful demonstrations.
“We urge the government of Georgia to respect the freedom of peaceful assembly and peaceful protest,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters. We stand with the people of Georgia and their aspirations.”
The Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, also expressed his support for the Georgian people.
Authorities said 55 police officers were injured during the first night of the protests when rocks and petrol bombs were thrown at them. Some of the most notorious images captured on Tuesday night came when protesters were sprayed with water cannons as they waved European Union flags.
Prime Minister Irakli Gribashvili denounced the “uproar” over the bill, which underwent its first reading in Parliament on Tuesday. The ruling party, the Georgian Dream, maintains legislation that dates back to 1930s American legislation. Russia used the same argument after it passed a similar law in 2012.
Russian law has since been expanded to crack down on Western-funded NGOs, independent media, journalists and bloggers. Anyone identified as a foreign agent is now required to display a foreign agent sticker on their post.
Pro-opposition television stations have dubbed the proposed legislation “the Russian law”.
Georgia has applied to the EU for candidate status and also aims to join NATO, but EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned that the bill “contradicts EU values and standards”.
Another student, Leah Chagovadze, said she and her friends were there to fight for Western values and freedom, while Nanuka Shakinovi said the protesters would not allow the government to stop Georgia’s bid to join the European Union: “We will fight them and we will not stop until we win.”
“They are trying again and again everything to take us away from the European Union and European values,” said Luka Kimredze, 30.
Criticizing the bill as similar to Russia’s repressive legislation is misleading, said Irakli Kobakhidze, president of Georgian Dream. “Eventually, the hype will die down and the public will have transparency in funding NGOs,” he said.
However, Eka Giguri of Transparency International told the BBC that NGOs were already subject to 10 different laws and that the Finance Ministry already had full access to accounts, funding and other information.
Political tensions in Georgia escalated due to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which many Georgians viewed as a war of aggression by Moscow, and thousands of Russians fled there. However, the government in Tbilisi has adopted a neutral stance, refusing to overtly support Ukraine or impose sanctions on Russia.
Speaking via videoconference during a visit to New York, Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili expressed her support for the demonstrators: “I am on your side. Today you represent free Georgia. Georgia, which sees its future in Europe, will not allow anyone to take away this future from it.”
She has vowed to veto the legislation, but the Georgian Dream has enough votes to override the president’s veto in Parliament. The party has applied to the Council of Europe for its opinion.
Passing the law would bring Georgia into the list of undemocratic and authoritarian post-Soviet states like Belarus, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan that have copied Russia’s law on restricting NGO activities.
Historically, the term “agent” in Russia and Georgia has the meaning of “spy” and “traitor”, giving a negative connotation to the work done by civil society. He points out that they are acting in the interests of foreign forces rather than doing good for the country and society.
Georgia and Russia: The Basics
- Pulled between the West and Russia: Georgia has sought to join NATO and the European Union, but critics accuse the current ruling party of the “Georgian dream” of trying to return the country to Russian influence.
- Russia invaded Georgia in 2008It came 17 years after its independence from the Soviet Union, the alliance of communist countries that broke up in 1991.
- Russian forces occupy two separate regions in GeorgiaSouth Ossetia and Abkhazia make up about 20% of Georgia’s territory
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