12 May 2024

Tens of thousands march in Georgian capital against ‘foreign agents’ bill

Foreign Affairs Correspondent

Georgia was invaded by Russia in 2008, and 20% of it is still under Russian military occupation. Protesters have gathered there to rally against a so-called foreign agents bill. On Saturday night, despite heavy rain, tens of thousands marched peacefully through Tbilisi against the Kremlin-style law, which has pitted the ruling Georgian Dream Party against pro-EU opposition parties and the president. Our foreign affairs correspondent Paraic O’Brien is in Tbilisi.

Focal point of demonstrations

We’re outside the Georgian Parliament building here in Tbilisi. And as we speak, thousands of people are streaming in from all the streets around to gather in front of this building. It becomes the focal point of these demonstrations that had been rolling for the last couple of days.

People say they are going to block MPs from the ruling party from getting into parliament for a crucial vote on Monday. Just in the last few hours, the interior minister has threatened four years in jail for people who do that. So the stage is set for quite a serious standoff between demonstrators and the government around this law.


Strength of feeling

Before we go into the details of the law itself, I just wanted to show you  pictures from Saturday’s demonstration and one of the biggest demonstrations I’ve reported on. Some estimates put the numbers at that demonstration last night at around a quarter of a million. Now, this is a small country, remember, under four million. So that just gives you an indication of the strength of feeling that there is when it comes to this law.


Foreign agents

The law has been dubbed the foreign agents law, and the thrust of it is that NGOs and media outlets who get over 20% of their funding from abroad will have to declare themselves as foreign influence operators. Now, the ruling party who are pushing this through, Georgian Dream, say that’s not what it’s about, that it will apply to NGOs and media outlets who get money from Russia as well as the West. They say it’s about reining in what they see as the undue influence of of NGOs and media outlets.


Russia v EU

But that is not how the demonstrators here see it. They see it as an existential crossroads in this country’s story. They see it as their government choosing a side – Russia v the European Union. And crucially, some 85% of the population here support EU membership.