thousands of demonstrators against the law on “foreign influence”

thousands of demonstrators against the law on “foreign influence”
thousands of demonstrators against the law on “foreign influence”

Georgia has been gripped by anti-government protests since early April after the ruling Georgian Dream party reintroduced a bill seen as an impediment to Tbilisi’s aspirations to join the EU.

Several thousand demonstrators took to the streets on Saturday evening in Tbilisi, Georgia, to once again protest against the controversial draft law on“foreign influence”wanted by the government but criticized by the United States and the European Union.

In the crowd, which converged on Europe Square, demonstrators displayed the flags of Georgia and the European Union, which Tbilisi says it wants to join, despite this text that its detractors consider similar to Russian legislation used against ‘opposition.

“Georgia! Georgia!”, chanted the numerous demonstrators who were walking along the Koura River, despite a heavy downpour, noted an AFP journalist. Among those present, Mariam Meunargia said she came to show that her country wants “simply being part of European society”. “We are protecting our European future”she wants to believe.

Demonstrators hold a rally to protest against a proposed law on “foreign agents” in Tbilisi, Georgia, May 11, 2024.
Irakli Gedenidze / REUTERS

Georgia, a small Caucasus country, has been gripped by anti-government protests since early April after the ruling Georgian Dream party reintroduced a bill seen as an obstacle to Tbilisi’s aspirations to join the EU. Because this text is inspired by Russian legislation used for several years by the Kremlin to repress dissident voices. The bill must still pass its third reading in Parliament very soon and President Salomé Zourabichvili, in conflict with the ruling party, is expected to veto it. The Georgian Dream, however, has enough votes to be able to override it.

In the city center of Tbilisi, an impressive crowd gathered after dark to show their opposition, a large police force having been installed earlier in the day. “No to Russian law!”, “No to the Russian dictatorship”, shouted the demonstrators. With the Ukrainian flag on her back, Victoria Sarjveladzé, 46, says she is there because her husband is fighting on the front against the Russian army. “We are both fighting against Russia”she summarizes. ‘We don’t need to go back to the Soviet Union’for her part denounces Lela Tsiklauri, a 38-year-old Georgian teacher, warning that “everything will get worse in our country if this law is adopted”.

Threat

In recent days, many activists working for NGOs and other rights groups have said they have received threats over the phone. Earlier on Saturday, feminist activist Baia Pataraia showed AFP orange graffiti on the door of her house and inside her building, where one could read ‘grant-eating lesbian’. “It’s to terrorize us”she castigated inside her apartment, saying she was not surprised by such provocations but still determined to participate in the big gathering in the evening.

If the controversial law is passed, it will require any NGO or media organization receiving more than 20% of its funding from abroad to register as an“organization pursuing the interests of a foreign power”. The government assures for its part that this measure is intended to oblige organizations to demonstrate greater “transparency” on their financing.

The law on “foreign influence” was first presented by the Georgian Dream in 2023. But massive protests had already forced the government to shelve it. His return, at the beginning of April, created the surprise and anger of many Georgians. These unrest comes a few months before legislative elections in October, considered an important test for democracy in this former Soviet republic accustomed to political crises.

In December 2023, the EU granted Georgia official candidate status, but said Tbilisi should carry out reforms to its judicial and electoral systems, increase press freedom and limit the power of oligarchs before negotiations membership are officially launched.

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