Georgia drops 'foreign agents' law in wake of protests

Thousands of people protested against the legislation in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. Credit: AP

Georgia's governing party has said it will withdraw draft legislation which opponents said would mirror a Russian-style law and stifle free press.

Had it passed, the bill would have required media and non-governmental organisations that receive more than 20% of their funding from foreign sources to register as "agents of foreign influence".

Opponents argued that it was inspired by a similar law used by authorities in Russia to silence critics and could hinder Georgia's aspirations of one day joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the European Union (EU).

Protests against the Bill began last week, but swelled in recent days to bring tens of thousands of people to the streets of Georgia's capital, Tbilisi.

In response, police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse crowds, with the country's Interior Ministry saying 133 demonstrators were arrested.

Citing the "controversy in society" the Bill triggered, the country's governing Georgian Dream party and its allies said they would withdraw the proposed law.

But analysts have cautioned that process might be complicated since it has already passed its first of three required readings.

A group of activists, who are spearheading the protests, said that demonstrations would resume on Thursday evening to ensure the bill is abandoned. They are also demanding the release of those arrested.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know

Georgia's President, Salome Zourabichvili, had already said she would veto the bill, in a move which indicated a growing divide between her and the Georgian Dream.

Ms Zourabichvili does not belong to any party, but the Georgian Dream backed her candidacy in the 2018 presidential election. Since assuming office, however, she has increasingly disagreed with its decisions and policies, particularly on foreign affairs.

Opposition parties have in recent years accused the Georgian Dream of pursuing pro-Russian policies while claiming to be Western-oriented.

The party's opponents have alleged that its founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili - a billionaire who made his fortune in Russia - retains overall control of the party, even though he currently doesn't hold a government job.

Georgia's Interior Ministry said 133 protestors were arrested. Credit: AP

Accusations of links to Russia have been repeatedly denied by the Georgian Dream.

Though they agreed to withdraw the bill, the Georgian Dream alleged that public opinion had been misled about the proposal.

"The bill was labeled falsely as a 'Russian law' and its adoption in the first reading was presented in the eyes of a part of the public as a departure from the European course," lawmakers said.

Ruling politicians began to back off the bill on Wednesday evening, as tens of thousands of people took to the streets.

They announced that Thursday's discussions of the proposal would be cancelled, while Parliament Speaker Shalva Papuashvili asked for the measure to be assessed by the Venice Commission - the commission which advises the Council of Europe, the continent's leading human rights body on constitutional matters.