Explained: The Russia-like law that has sparked violent protests in Georgia


First it was lawmakers punching each other inside parliament and then came violent protests. Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, has been the epicentre of violent protests, all because of a law that many say could stifle media freedom and civil society.

On Wednesday, the police used water cannon and tear gas against protesters as they continued their demonstrations for a second consecutive day; they waved European Union flags and chanted “down with the Russian law” as they went up against the authorities. This followed the violence that took place on Tuesday — 66 people were arrested then — after the bill was passed in a first reading in parliament.

As protests grow louder with the United States and Ukraine lending their support to demonstrators, we take a closer look at the law, which has caused such outrage in the country and what’s been going on in the country.

Also read: Georgian lawmakers brawl in parliament over proposed ‘foreign agents’ law

What’s the law all about?

The draft law — On Transparency of Foreign Influence — has been proposed by a faction in the parliament formed by the members who left the ruling Georgian Dream party but remained in the parliamentary majority.

Under this law, nongovernmental groups, and print, online and broadcast media that receive 20 per cent or more of their annual revenue — either financial support or in-kind contributions — from abroad could be classified as “foreign agents”.

Organisations and media outlets registered as an agent of “agent of foreign influence” would be obliged to submit an electronic financial declaration, including full data on the source, amount, and purpose of any money and other material benefits received and spent. This duplicates some reporting obligations to tax and other agencies, and would further put at risk the privacy of those related to the association. The law would permit Georgia’s justice ministry to authorise investigations and request and study additional information, including personal data.

The bill also states that failure to comply would invite a fine as well as five years in prison.

In defending the bill, members of the Georgian Dream party refer to US legislation dating from the 1930s, the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA). However, under the US law, organisations and people did not require registration simply on grounds of foreign funding.

How is it connected to Russia?

Many Georgians, who are against the legislation, opine that it is very similar to that passed by its neighbouring country — Russia.

In 2012, Russia’s president and strongman Vladimir Putin had signed off on a law tightening controls on civil rights groups funded from abroad, which was seen as an attempt to crack down on dissent. Last June, the Russian Duma approved another bill imposing draconian restrictions on individuals and organisations “under foreign influence.”

Many also see the law as a move by the Georgian Dream party moving closer to Russia and taking the country in a more repressive direction. Georgian society has been strongly anti-Moscow and the two countries share no formal diplomatic relations since August 2008, largely due to the Russo-Georgian War and Russian recognition of separatist regions — Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Those against the proposed law argue that its draconian in nature and too similar to the one passed in Russia. AP

How has the legislation been received?

The draft law, which had its first reading in Parliament on Tuesday and received a comfortable 76-13 majority, has divided Georgian society.

Georgia’s prime minister Irakli Garibashvili defending the law has said that it would help root out those working against the interests of the country and the powerful Georgian Orthodox Church. He has also accused Georgia’s “radical opposition” of stirring up protesters to commit “unprecedented violence”.

However, President Salome Zourabichvili is against the legislation and said she intended to veto the law if it crossed her desk. However, the parliament could override her veto. She expressed solidarity with the protesters on Tuesday. “You represent a free Georgia, a Georgia which sees its future in the west, and won’t let anyone take this future away,” she said in an address recorded in the United States, where she is on an official visit.

“Nobody needs this law… Everyone who has voted for this law has violated the constitution,” she said.

Protesters throw a smoke grenade at police outside the Georgian parliament building in Tbilisi. AP

Ghia Nodia, Georgia’s former minister of education, told Al Jazeera that the law was likely to stifle press freedom in a country where a large share of the media is controlled by the government. “A large part of independent media in Georgia gets outside support. The government says that it’s just for transparency but this draft law models the Russian law, and in Russia, the legislation was a step towards repressing independent media,” he said.

The general public is also against the legislation with many taking to the streets on Tuesday and Wednesday to protest. They worry that the bill would limit press freedom and undercut the country’s efforts to become a candidate for European Union membership.

Demonstrators carried EU and Georgian flags on Wednesday and gathered in large numbers at city’s central Rustaveli Avenue. Some held their phone flashlights above their heads, while others chanted ‘No to Russian law’.

Vakho Pavlenishvili, who attended the demonstrations both days, said that he planned to continue protesting. In a Washington Post report, he was quoted as saying, “We have been protesting against our government because they have gone against the will of the Georgian people, and they would like to introduce a law which is in the best interests of our main enemy — the Russian Federation. They want to limit our freedom, but they are going against our constitution.”

Georgian police detain a protester during a protest outside the Georgian parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia. Authorities used tear gas and water cannon outside the parliament building in the capital against protesters who oppose a proposed law some see as stifling freedom of the press. AP

Otar Berov, a Georgian sports commentator who attended the rally on Tuesday, said he was planning to continue to protest for “as long as it takes”. “The law is against its own people. They are trying to cut us from the west and force us closer to Russia. But our future is not with Russia; that is clear,” he told the Guardian.

Another demonstrator named Tekla Tevdorashvili told BBC, “People are really angry because this is not about one specific thing, it’s about the future of Georgia and it’s about how we’ll function as a country. Everyone is really against this and I think that’s why they’re so afraid and that’s why the government is trying to use everything that they can against the people to silence us but we will not be silenced.”

Opposition leader Nika Melia vowed that protests would continue against the legislation. “Every day will be like that. No matter how many times they disperse us, no matter how much gas they use, we will gather again and again, and there should be more and more of us.”

Even Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed his support for the Georgian people. In his daily address, he said, “There is no Ukrainian who would not wish success to our friendly Georgia. Democratic success. European success.”

How does the bill affect EU entry?

Several protesters argued that the bill would hurt the country’s effort to join the European Union.

The EU is currently considering Georgia’s application for candidate status, and several senior EU officials have expressed their disdain for the proposed bill. On Wednesday, the European Council president Charles Michel tweeted that the law was no compatible with the EU path.

A statement from European Parliament members Maria Kaljurand and Sven Mikser, said the draft law “goes directly against the Georgian authorities’ declared ambition to receive candidate status for EU membership”.

“The new law’s purpose, under the guise of promoting transparency, is to stigmatise the work of civil society organisations and media,” the statement added.

With inputs from agencies

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Explained: The Russia-like law that has sparked violent protests in Georgia
Explained: The Russia-like law that has sparked violent protests in Georgia
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