AFPGeorgians protest against a new bill
A controversial bill in Georgia today and yesterday mobilized thousands of people in the capital Tbilisi. Opponents fear that the law is intended to silence government critics, as happened after a similar law was introduced in Russia. It also raises the question of whether the government is throwing overboard earlier ambitions for European rapprochement.
A demonstration outside the parliament building in Tbilisi was violently crushed yesterday with water cannons and tear gas. The police also cracked down today.
Government party Georgian Dream has presented itself as pro-European in the past, but this bill seems to show itself from a different angle, says Wouter Zweers, Europe expert at the Clingendael Institute. “This party came to power in 2012 with a pro-European narrative, but they have also always said that they want to maintain relations with Russia.” According to Zweers, they want to prevent Russia from invading Georgia again, as happened in 2008.
Party leader is oligarch with Russian ties
According to Zweers, the fact that the party now wants to introduce this law fits in with the increasingly autocratic attitude of the government in recent years. “The party leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili, is something of an oligarch who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s and may still have political ties to Russia behind the scenes.”
And that while the Georgian population is not at all waiting for rapprochement with Russia, Zweers outlines. “In a recent poll, only 2 percent of Georgians indicated that they want to stop European integration and cooperate more with Russia. This party therefore claims to be pro-European, but in practice you see that reforms have become increasingly slow down. This bill seems to be completely in line with that.”
Fine or imprisonment
Yesterday, the first part of the law was passed by an overwhelming majority in parliament. Given the large support, it is expected that the entire law will be passed within a few days. “The law focuses on civil society organizations that are involved in democracy, human rights, women’s rights and the like. Investigative journalists also fall under this”, says Zweers.
If the law is passed, these organizations and individuals would have to register as ‘foreign agents’ with the Georgian Ministry of Justice if they receive more than 20 percent foreign funding. They can also be checked and additional restrictions imposed. Organizations risk a fine or a prison sentence of up to five years if they do not comply with the rules.
European leaders also say the law is intended to silence critical opposition to the government. European Commission President Charles Michel called the bill “incompatible with the EU path that the majority of Georgians want”. According to Zweers, a similar law passed in Russia in 2012 marked “the beginning of the end of freedom of expression and freedom of association”.
President wants to veto
Notably, independent president Salome Zourabichvili has said she will veto the law if it passes. She therefore supports the protesters. However, that does not mean that the bill has been passed. “In the end, she cannot stop it. The law then goes back to parliament, which can override the president’s decisions,” said Zweers.
Zweers suspects that the Georgian population will not simply accept the new law, but whether that will lead to its being withdrawn is the question. “Georgia’s future as a Western country, as a Western partner, is at stake.”
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