Foreign Agent Draft Law Triggered Anger among Georgian Youths

Honoré Daumier: The Uprising // Public domain

On March 9, the Georgian parliament revoked a draft of a bill on Foreign Influence Agents supported by its majority. The purpose of the bill was to oblige any media or civil society organization to register as a foreign agent if they use foreign money from any source for its activities. 

The draft was adopted after its first hearing on Tuesday, March 7, despite very tough criticism from civil society organizations, independent media, opposition politicians, leaders and diplomats from friendly countries. All tried to explain that this draft is against human rights and jeopardizes the desire of the vast majority of Georgians to join the European Community. 

Some Background on Russo-Georgian Relationship and Impact of Russo-Ukrainian War

Georgia became independent from Russia in 1991 and immediately faced economic, political and military aggression from Russia. The free-market reforms implemented in Georgia since 2004 have been very successful, leaving Russian leaders unhappy and even more aggressive towards Georgia.

In 2008, Russia occupied 20% of Georgia’s territory, despite a peace made by President Sarkozy. The 2008 war made the two nations very unfriendly: there have been no diplomatic missions or official relationshas since then. The current Georgian government, which came to power in 2012, has taken several steps to calm this relationship, improve trade and avoid radical steps against Russia. This was happening in parallel with the signing of a free trade agreement with the EU. Georgians expected that integration with the EU would be faster with this agreement, but instead it stagnated. Meanwhile, trade with Russia has improved rapidly.

Russia’s war in Ukraine put the Georgian government in a difficult position. First of all, it had to decide firmly which side it was on. Georgians’ overwhelming support for Ukraine did not give the government a chance to openly support Russia. Such support for Russia works against common sense as Russia still occupies Georgia’s territories, but it is justified mainly by the fear that in the event of an attack by Russia, no one would be able to defend Georgia.

Therefore Georgia joined several international restrictions on trade with Russia, but continued to trade when it was in compliance with sanctions. For instance, Georgia has become a route for Russian freight transport, with truck lines tens of kilometers long. Also, many Russians have opened their visa accounts in Georgia because they are banned from the payment system, etc. As a result, Georgia’s GDP reached a record 20 billion euros in 2022, mainly due to an increase in remittances and visitors spending the equivalent of almost 20% of GDP – mainly from Russia.

Instead of taking further steps toward the EU that would allow Georgians to travel and trade without restrictions, the government continued to promote and even brag about its trade achievements with Russia. It had no shame to say that Georgia succeeded in 2022 because of the Russian-Ukrainian war – not following any practical improvement in the business climate.

Thus, politically and economically, Georgia has recently become very dependent on Russia. Now the Kremlin has gone further and obliged its Georgian counterparts to show more obedience. This explains the Foreign Agents of Influence Law – to restrict and control free NGOs and the media, which not only irritate those in power, but also watch and report very closely on their irregularities.

Strong and Courageous Protesters

Therefore, the government majority initiated the law and started the procedures very quickly as it expected the opposition. On the day of the first session, the parliamentary majority tried to deceive opposition deputies by announcing that the parliamentary session would begin two days later. Opposition deputies arrived quickly, but could not change the situation – the parliament passed the law for the first session with. 76 deputies out of 150 voted in favor of the bill.

That same evening, the main street – Rustaveli Avenue, where the parliament building is located – was packed with people. Thousands of students with EU, US, Ukraine and Georgian flags and protest signs came to express their discontent with the Georgian government and Russia. People tried to organize “corridors of shame” for the “traitors” – MPs.

Police began arresting people, and since many protesters refused to leave, they used water cannons and tear gas. Since this did not help, police special forces arrived and began firing gas grenades, more water cannons and arresting people. This lasted until 5 a.m. and only served as a wake-up call for others to join the protests the next day.

On March 8, people actually began to announce their support for the protesters and organized several groups to reach Rustaveli Avenue. In the evening, tens of thousands gathered, filling the mile-long street almost entirely. Police decided to use force again. But several thousands of young people stood still despite being tired, beaten, poisoned, and wet. Police continued to arrest anyone they could catch. Many of those arrested were kept in police cars as there was no more space in the temporary prisons before the trial. 

Protesters also retaliated by any means available, throwing water bottles or damaging police cars. Many tried to talk to police officers and special force servicemen to explain why this law was bad even for them. Frontliners were standing with Union and Georgian flags, which made no sense to police officers. ighting, arrests and pursuit of protesters continued on various streets and even in nearby international hotels.

It was clear that on March 9 the number of protesters would only increase. Many well-known Georgians, diplomats, poets, painters, writers, professors, actors, singers, footballers, rugby players and entire teams, students and physicists, doctors, friends from abroad, leaders of nations, all demanded that the Georgian authorities repeal the law. And so on the morning of March 9, the parliamentary announcer announced that the majority had decided to cancel the bill.

No to Russian Law

The protests and celebration continued in the following days to show how strong the determination of young people and civil society is. The emotions that peaked in the previous days remained strong. One very important fact needs to be highlighted:  the events were called protests against “Russian law”. Why “Russian” ? Because Russia passed a similar law 11 years ago, which became a platform for the destruction of the country’s weak civil society, paving the way for the current dictatorship.

How did it happen that the usually politically passive Georgian youth joined and later led the protests? They decided to take the initiative because they realized that the older generations were weak. In fact, the main strength of the protests came from the Georgians’ will to be free and never become slaves to Russia. They aspire to become part of the European community, where the individual, his freedoms and rights are respected and protected. This is why Georgians call it Russian law. It is obvious that Russia does not care about freedoms and human rights. It is also why protesters call the parliamentary majority Russians, traitors, inhumans.

The draft law requiring, in the name of transparency, NGOs and media to register as as agents of foreign influence contradicts five articles of the Georgian Constitution and several international documents that Georgia has ratified (such as the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).

These documents stipulate that any individual or group of individuals is free to act without any limits or restrictions. They are intended to limit the power of government, not to grant rights to individuals. They only confirm that no individual or organization of individuals can be obliged to tell its government what it does and the sources of its funding. The recent events in Georgia have therefore played another important role: they have reminded us of the importance of some of the major achievements of our civilization in the sphere of freedom and human rights.

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