Georgia in Turmoil: Protests Over Controversial 'Russian Law' Threaten EU Aspirations

The former Soviet republic has been gripped by protests for weeks over a law that protesters fear will sabotage its hopes of joining the European Union and undermine democracy

by Sededin Dedovic
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Georgia in Turmoil: Protests Over Controversial 'Russian Law' Threaten EU Aspirations
© Daro Sulakauri / Getty Images

The former Soviet republic has been engulfed in protests for weeks over a law that demonstrators fear will sabotage its hopes of joining the European Union and undermine democracy. The ruling party Georgian Dream, which was forced to abandon a similar law last year following public outcry, intends to pass the law in its final debate expected on Tuesday, claiming that the new rules will promote transparency.

The law requires non-governmental organizations and media receiving more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as "organizations serving the interests of foreign powers." "We plan to stay here as long as necessary," said 22-year-old Mariam Karlandadze to AFP, as lawmakers pushed the law through the legal committee.

"This law means not joining Europe. It's something I've wanted my whole life," she said. AFP journalists have seen hundreds of riot police lining the street behind the parliament, where law enforcement clashed with demonstrators and arrested some.

A person is detained as two Americans and one Russian citizen are among 20 detained during a protest against the foreign agents © Daro Sulakauri / Getty Images

Authorities have warned that people blocking the parliament will be arrested, but thousands defied the warning and reached the building's gates.

EU condemns violence

The European Union, which granted Georgia candidate status last year, urged Tbilisi to investigate reported acts of violence and praised Georgians' "impressive commitment" to European integration. "We strongly condemn acts of intimidation, threats, and physical attacks on demonstrators, civil society activists, politicians, journalists, and media workers," said spokesman Peter Stano.

One of the demonstrators, 26-year-old Ana Mirakove, said she was concerned that the conflict with the police could escalate into violence "at any moment." "No one here thinks it will be safe," she told AFP. "I see Georgia where it belongs – within the European Union and freely deciding its future," she added.

Videos circulating in Georgian media show police pushing and kicking demonstrators as they tried to clear the entrances to parliament. Student groups from universities across Georgia boycotted classes in protest against the foreign agents law, OC Media reports.

The University of Georgia suspended studies for a week. As reported by France 24, protests are led by university students who declared a strike and pledged to protest throughout the day and start the third consecutive night of protests.

Many of them stayed overnight, wrapped in EU and Georgian flags. They cheered as stray dogs barked at police cars. Over the weekend, tens of thousands gathered in Georgia's capital, with around 50,000 demonstrators marching through Tbilisi on May 11 to express their opposition to the law.

Georgia's Interior Ministry warned early on May 13 that demonstrators should leave the entrance to parliament to allow lawmakers to enter the building. Critics of Georgian Dream say the party is abandoning the commitment to integrate with Europe and that the proposed law will bring Georgia closer to authoritarian Russia.

Moscow adopted a similar foreign influence law in 2012 and used it to pressure individuals associated with the opposition. "If this law passes, we will slowly become Russia. We know what happened there and in Belarus. We know this scenario," said 26-year-old Archil Svanidze.

"We've always known we are part of Europe. Every generation knows this – not just Gen Z and millennials," he said, adding that his father had been at the protest most of the night. Georgian Dream – in power since 2012 – portrayed demonstrators as violent mobs and defended the law as necessary for Georgia's sovereignty.

The party unexpectedly reintroduced the draft law in April, a year after it was withdrawn due to negative reactions. According to Kyiv Independent, the protests were accompanied by police violence, with the police using tear gas, water cannons, chemical substances, as well as rubber bullets and extreme physical force to try to disperse the demonstrations.

Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze defended the use of force and blamed the demonstrators, saying in a speech that "violence breeds violence." Kobakhidze had previously attempted to introduce a foreign agents law. The foreign agents law was first introduced by Kobakhidze's Georgian Dream party in 2023 but was withdrawn after causing mass protests.

The Georgian Dream party reintroduced the law to parliament in April, renaming it the "transparency of foreign influence" law, but retaining essentially the same intent as the previous law. Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia, accused non-governmental organizations of planning a revolution and being foreign puppets.

The party also accuses demonstrators of hiding connections with their enemy and former leader Mikheil Saakashvili, who was arrested on charges of abuse of office. "The irony is that they always criticize the last government as corrupt and brutal," said 18-year-old Salome Lobjanidze, who skipped university lectures on Monday to be in front of parliament. "If it passes, many people standing here will leave the country," she told AFP, as reported by France 24.

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