Why are people protesting in Tbilisi, Georgia? The 'foreign agents' bill explained

Thousands of Georgians launched mass rallies this week in protest over a draft "foreign agents" bill initially passed by their government.

LONDON — After days of mass protests in Tbilisi, Georgia’s Parliament on Friday voted against a controversial bill that opponents said would lead to silencing free media and human rights defenders.

Politicians voted 35 to 1, without discussion, against the “foreign agents” legislation, which the ruling Georgian Dream party said would ensure “at least minimum transparency and accountability” of nonprofit organizations. Georgian Dream said Thursday that it was withdrawing the Russian-inspired bill.

What are the demonstrations about?

People in Tbilisi, Georgia, gather to stage a nighttime demonstration.
Demonstrators in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Thursday. (David Mdzinarishvili/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Since Tuesday, when Parliament passed the first reading of the draft law, tens of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets of Tbilisi in protest of the proposed bill. Protesters said the legislation could enable the government to label critics as “foreign agents.”

“Resisting Russian law at this stage is important, because we know how the dictatorship was formed in Russia and then in Belarus. With such laws, freedom completely disappeared,” student and human rights defender Nikusha Parulava told Yahoo News.

Parulava joined the protests the day they began and witnessed the country’s police turn against demonstrators. Water cannons and tear gas were deployed, and it is estimated that over 100 people were arrested. “During the illegal arrests, the police and special forces beat the demonstrators,” Parulava said.

What is the draft bill about?

Police use tear gas to disperse protesters gathered in the streets of Tbilisi, Georgia.
Police use tear gas to disperse protesters during a rally against a draft law on “foreign agents” on Thursday. (Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters)

The Georgian Dream party earlier this week passed a draft bill that would include two laws on “the transparency of foreign influence” and the “registration of foreign agents.” If passed, the laws would require nongovernmental organizations, such as media outlets and charities, that receive more than 20% of their funding from foreign sources to register as “agents of foreign influence.” Failure to comply would result in fines and at worst, prison time.

“Today is a dark day for Georgia’s democracy,” the U.S. Embassy in Georgia said in a statement reacting to the initial passing of the bill. “Parliament’s advancing of these Kremlin-inspired laws is incompatible with the people of Georgia’s clear desire for European integration and its democratic development.”

It added: “Pursuing these laws will damage Georgia’s relations with its strategic partners and undermine the important work of so many Georgian organizations working to help their fellow citizens.”

A woman holding flags, including that of the U.S., and a “We are Europe” sign participates in a protest.
A woman holding flags, including that of the U.S., and a “We are Europe” sign at a protest against the proposed bill. (David Mdzinarishvili/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

After an initial uproar, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili defended the legislation, stating: “The future of our country does not belong and will no longer belong to foreign agents or servants of foreign countries. The future of our country and our people belongs to patriots.”

A similar bill that was passed in Russia in 2012 first began designating NGOs that receive funding from outside the country as “foreign agents.” In 2019 the bill was amended to target independent journalists and bloggers, and one year later it was expanded to include any single individual, in what Human Rights Watch called a move to “suffocate civil society.”

“For me as a journalist, it’s very dangerous,” local reporter Nastasia Arabuli told Yahoo News. “This law is a direct threat to me, since I represent an independent media that is fully funded by the West. We [would] probably be one of the first to be declared foreign spies under this law.”

Could it still be made law?

The bill could not be made into law right now, considering that the governing party dropped it on Friday. However, there is nothing preventing the government from reintroducing it in the future. In a bid to stop this from happening, protesters are continuing to hold demonstrations outside Georgia’s Parliament to ensure that the bill is not received again by lawmakers, and to demand the release of all those who were arrested during the protests.

A man carrying a stick walks past a burning police car not far from the Parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia.
A man walks past a burning police car not far from the Parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Thursday. (Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP)

According to the Georgian Interior Ministry, by Friday morning it had freed 133 of those detained on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“We are angry,” Arabuli said when asked about the draft bill. “People are totally angry and offended. Nobody wants a Russian law or a repressive regime in Georgia again.”