14 May 2024

Georgia protests: ‘Foreign agents’ bill approved but will it come into action?

Scuffles broke out inside and outside the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi on Tuesday after MPs gave their approval to the country’s divisive Foreign Influence law.

We spoke to Ia Meurmishvili in Tbilisi, a Georgian journalist, on how protestors are reacting since the law has been voted through.

Ia Meurmishvili: I can sense their anger. And this anger has been sort of accumulating over the days. Everybody was anticipating and expecting that the law would be adopted today. And they were also waiting to hear what [United States Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs] Jim O’Brien would have to say to the Georgian people. So all these factors combined together, there’s a tension in the air. The demonstrators are now moving from one location to another and they probably will stay up all night again, much like the previous nights.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: So these protests are continuing right now. We can see it looks fairly calm, but where do you think this goes? Does it become a bigger confrontation between the people and the authorities as this progresses? Because there are still weeks to go before this actually could become law.

Ia Meurmishvili: That’s absolutely correct. But the countdown really has started today with this vote. So now the bill will be sent to the president and she has two weeks to sit on the bill. And she promised that she would veto it. And the expectation is that she will sit on it for the full duration that she has. After that, she will return it back to the Parliament. And Georgian Dream has stated multiple times that they will overcome the veto. And after that, there is a month-long period during which the law will go into effect. After that, there are all these timeframes that they have. It’s about mid-September where everybody that the law would require to register as a foreign agent would have to register. And most people I’ve spoken with in Georgia are refusing to do so. So we’ll see some sort of actions from the government side, whether it’s seizing the property, closing down the offices of the NGOs and possibly independent media as well. So then the country will have about six weeks from that point on until the elections to sort of figure out how to get to the elections in a way that it’s free and fair.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: Why, when America, the European Union, the United Kingdom are all voicing their concern about this, is the government – which understands that the people want to join the European Union – going ahead with this? What’s motivating them?

Ia Meurmishvili: About 80% of the Georgian population wants to join the EU, and a lesser percent for Nato, but the EU has incredible support in Georgia. So there is a sort of clash between the society or the biggest part of the society and the government here. The EU and the US have expressed a number of grave concerns, and sometimes people even say that we’re tired of hearing about how gravely you’re concerned about Georgia and please do something meaningful and something tangible. So the U.S. State Department has made over ten statements throughout this month. EU, European countries, [the UK] government as well today saying that they are very concerned about what’s happening and that the law does not allow Georgia to become part of the European Community. So, there are a couple of leverages that both the EU, European countries, as well as the United States have. Everybody here is asking for sanctions. And anytime you ask somebody, ‘how do we come out of this situation?’ The response is ‘sanctions, sanctions, sanctions’. So they’re talking about travel sanctions, and Georgia now has the visa liberalisation from the EU. So some of the opposition is demanding, most of them actually, are demanding from the EU to stop or pause this process.

From the United States, the situation is different. There is no visa liberalisation with the US. However, the US has already sanctioned four Georgian judges last year, and people are asking to expand the list of the sanctioned individuals who would be prevented to travel to the United States and to apply those sanctions to their family members, as well, as some of these deputies and some of the high officials have their children in the United States going to schools or working or whatever. So, they want the family members to feel the pain as well. And they are also talking about financial sanctions against government officials as well as, [Georgian Dream Honorary Chairman] Bidzina Ivanishvili, who we have not spoken about yet. But he’s sort of the person in charge in the country. And sometimes they say that it’s one person’s little company that he runs, but it’s not a company, it’s a country.