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Prawa autorskie: Foto Zurab TSERTSVADZE / AFPFoto Zurab TSERTSVAD...

Tekst Stasi Budzisz "Gruzja. Po ostrych protestach parlament odrzucił prawo o „zagranicznych agentach” opublikowaliśmy 10 marca 2023 r.

Latest news: The majority of MPs at a session of the Georgian parliament rejected the foreign agents act on Friday 10 March, despite protests from the head of the ruling party.

Thirty-five of the 58 MPs present voted against it. The vote was held immediately after the start of the session and was not preceded by a debate.

According to the portal, OC Media, the head of Georgian Dream, Irakli Kobakhidze, continued to defend the bill immediately after the vote. He said its very procedure showed that there are very many ‘agents under foreign influence’ operating in Georgia, who are involved in calling the elections a ‘fraudulent vote’ and pursue ‘LGBT propaganda’ and the denial of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

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The day before, after a second night of fierce protests in the Georgian capital, the government itself stopped processing the ‘foreign agents’ act, which the Georgian parliament adopted at the first reading on 7 March. The act bears the title of ‘On transparency of foreign influence’; this is the so-called Georgian variant (a similar-sounding, so-called American variant, ‘On the registration of foreign agents’, was not processed that day).

This was a surprise act, as the consideration of both bills was scheduled for Thursday, 9 March.

The adoption of the act provoked a strong reaction from the Georgian public and led to huge, two-day protests outside the parliament in Tbilisi and in other Georgian cities. The authorities tried to suppress them at all costs. The specnaz, police and water cannons came out against the protesters. The authorities also used tear gas and stun grenades.

133 people were also detained over two days, including Zurab Japaridze, head of the opposition party, Girchi.

Protestujący niosący flagę Unii Europejskiej są opryskiwani przez armatki wodne podczas starć z policją
The protesters are waving an EU flag; the police is dispersing them with water cannons, Tbilisi, 7 March 2023. Foto AFP.

Ruling party: we shall wait until the emotions subside

Amid a wave of protests, the ruling Georgian Dream party, which has been in power since 2012, issued a statement early on 9 March:

‘We see the adopted bill has caused controversy among the public. The machine of lies has managed to present the bill in a negative light and mislead some of the public. The bill was given the false label of “Russian law” and its adoption in the first reading was presented to some of the public as a departure from the European course.

Other than this, radical forces were able to draw some young people into illegal activities. We would like to thank the heroic law enforcement officers who patiently responded to the violence in accordance with the highest standards.

We should take peace, tranquillity and the economic development of our country, as well as Georgia’s path towards integration with the European Union, as seriously as possible. That is why we believe it is not worth wasting the energy of our citizens on a battle with the authorities, but redirecting it to the development of our country.

Taking into account everything that has been mentioned above, we, as an authority that is responsible to every member of society, have decided to unconditionally cancel the bill we have been supporting without any discussion.

When the emotions subside, we will try to better explain why we adopted this bill and why it was so important to secure the transparency of foreign influence in our country. For this reason, we shall initiate meetings with the people and present the whole truth to the public about every detail of this matter.

We are acting with special responsibility which we, as the ruling force, bear before every member of society.

Georgia will maintain peace and stability and continue to step proudly towards Europe, because this is the choice of the Georgian public.’

NGO: This changes nothing

News of the victory of democracy and the strength of civil society spread through the internet after the announcement of the statement. At the same time, the NGOs, the Association of Young Lawyers, the vibrant Shame Movement and the Democracy Research Institute (DRI) think tank raised the alarm.

They used all possible means to inform the citizens of Georgia that, firstly, Georgian Dream did not mention the so-called ‘American bill’, the processing of which may still be in progress; and secondly, and more importantly, a mere declaration made by the ruling party changes nothing. This is because the bill is still ‘active’ after the first reading and can be put into the ‘freezer’.

‘According to Article 112 of the rules of parliament, the bill should be subjected to a second reading within three weeks,’ explains lawyer Nino Bolkwadze.

‘If it does not do this within the prescribed period, the parliamentary bureau can extend it for a period that is not specified in the rules. The bill can remain in such a ‘freezer’ for up to several months, but can be pulled out at any time and adopted in the second reading, after which it will enter into force. This can even be done quietly or the public can be blackmailed with it.

The non-governmental organizations emphasize: ‘So, in order to effectively “get rid” of the “foreign agents” act, a plenary session needs to be called at which a vote should be held on its cancellation. This is the only effective way. As for the bill “On the registration of foreign agents”, the matter is simpler. It is enough for the authors, namely the MPs from the People’s Power movement, to sign the cancellation of the bill’.

However, instead of that, the parliamentary sessions scheduled for three days were cancelled within a day, giving the explanation that the building that had been damaged during the protests and required repair work.

According to the OC Media portal, bars were installed in the windows of the parliament building during the day and two new cameras were installed in the immediate vicinity.

Further demonstrations

As a result, activists and opposition parties announced a demonstration outside parliament, which started at 7 pm on Thursday, 9 March. The protesters had already announced their demands during the day.

They expected the final withdrawal from work on the bills, the release of everyone detained in recent days and the opening of an investigation against the people in the security services who had committed acts of violence against the protesters.

That same day, 9 March, all detainees were released from detention and, in the evening, the authorities announced that a plenary session would start at 11.45 am on Friday, 10 March, at which the parliamentary majority was to vote against the foreign agents bill. The protest on 9 March was peaceful and, according to witnesses, had fewer protesters than on the preceding days.

The organizers urged the people to gather outside the parliament building in Tbilisi from as early as 11 am.

The parliament rejected the foreign agents act on the morning of Friday 10 March in response to these demands.

Threat to civil society

The act targets the media and NGOs which receive support from abroad (at least 20% of their funding). The very procedure of these bills was condemned not only by the Georgian public, but also by sports personalities and celebrities.

It also encountered harsh criticism internationally, both from the European Union, the USA, international human rights organizations and the UN.

It should be remembered that, unlike Moldova and Ukraine, Georgia did not receive EU candidate status in August 2022. Instead, it was granted a European perspective, according to which it undertook to fulfil 12 points to be able to reapply for the status.

The authority blames ‘radical’ forces

Judging by the reaction of the EU representatives, the mere processing of the foreign agents bill has reflected badly on the Georgian Dream’s image, although the ruling party has already started the process of turning around and whitewashing its decisions.

By withdrawing from the further processing of the bill, they have sent a signal to the Georgians that cooperation with the EU is a priority for them. They have therefore turned an unfavourable situation into their success and pointed the blame at the misinterpretation of their intentions.

They claim that the ‘radical forces’ that dragged the youth into illegal activities are to blame for that. This term probably refers to the ‘radical opposition’. In its statement, Georgian Dream also promises to ‘explain’ the reasons for the need for the foreign agents act to the public when the emotions subside.

However, the ruling party seems to have understood that if it deviates from the European path it will be difficult for it to win next year’s elections, and there is no doubt that this is what they are concerned about most. And no doubt, greater control over the third sector and the media could help them in this.

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Stasia Budzisz

Stasia Budzisz, tłumaczka języka rosyjskiego i dziennikarka współpracująca z "Przekrojem" i "Krytyką Polityczną". Specjalizuje się w Europie Środkowo-Wschodniej. Jest autorką książki reporterskiej "Pokazucha. Na gruzińskich zasadach" (Wydawnictwo Poznańskie, 2019).  

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