14 May 2024

Georgia: Protestors and riot police face off as ‘foreign agents’ bill approved

Foreign Affairs Correspondent

Riot police are confronting crowds of protestors outside the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi tonight after MPs gave their approval to the country’s divisive Foreign Influence law.

Scuffles broke out inside the parliament too, as deputies traded blows over the legislation, which opponents say will stifle dissent and jeopardise Georgia’s hopes of joining the European Union.

This controversial piece of legislation was voted through Parliament because of Georgian Dream MPs. They’re the ruling party and the elected leadership of this country. There were no Georgian Dream supporters storming parliament today.

So what happens next? The president gets an opportunity to veto this legislation in the coming two weeks. That will happen. But that will be overruled by Georgian Dream. So the big questions now are how will the international community, how will the EU and the US respond to this? How will Georgian Dream process this in terms of an election coming in October? And crucially, how will Georgian society process this incredibly dramatic day?

Storming the gates

Outside the Georgian parliament on Tuesday as MPs for the ruling party had just voted through the foreign agent bill,  protestors were out in force.

“I’m so angry about our government because they don’t care about us. They just care about Russia. And they are low. And I am so, so angry. I just want to cry,” said one protestor.

Protestors see that as this country pivoting in the direction of Russia, demonstrators have breached the outside fence. They came right up to the entrance of Parliament, climbed over it and stormed the gates.

When they finally did break the fence, a moment of ‘now what do we do?’ With the vote through, opposition politicians and the EU asking themselves the same question.

There wasn’t much time to ponder that question. Police poured out of the building, several arrests were made. Those demanding entry now  were dragged in, kicking and screaming.

‘We will secure our brilliant future’

Earlier in the day, as MPs arrived to vote – so did protesters in their thousands. The students said over 30 universities had called a strike so as to be here. And for them, this law equals legislative pages from Putin’s playbook that could jeopardise EU membership and strangle dissent. So march up the hill, they did. Because for them, it’s the one that Georgian democracy lives or dies on. And just before the hearing and vote, a message from opposition MPs on the Parliament balcony.

“Georgia will become a member of the European Union, Nato, and Georgian people will never surrender. These youths will lead Georgia to the European Union, and we will secure our brilliant future,” said Giorgi Vashadze, leader of New Georgia.

Bill approved

As the hearing started, there was relative calm outside. Not so in Parliament itself, the now near compulsory bust-up with Georgian MPs turning on each other. At 3:52 p.m, the foreign agents bill was voted through its final parliamentary stage, and as word filtered through, the demonstrators surged forward.

Things finally settled down in the afternoon. The ruling party Georgian Dream assessed what this means for them in elections in October. The United States is talking sanctions. And the demonstrators, set down on the ground, wiped away pepper gas tears.