Massive pro-EU, anti-Russia protest erupts in Georgia
Thousands of people demonstrated in Tbilisi overnight, waving EU flags and facing down riot police in protest against a controversial law which Georgia’s president says is “dictated by Moscow.”
In video footage and photographs, protesters chanted “down with the Russian law” as they squared off with heavily armored police who blasted them with water cannons in the Georgian capital.
Russian President Vladimir Putin — who has waged an all-out war on Ukraine for the past year and first sent troops into Crimea and the Donbas in 2014 after massive pro-EU winter protests in Kyiv — will view the Tbilisi demonstration warily, as anti-Moscow sentiment builds in another former Soviet republic.
The draft bill, which passed its first reading in the Georgian parliament with a comfortable 76-13 majority on Tuesday evening, would require all organizations which receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents,” or face big fines.
It still has to go through a second and third reading, but has the backing of the ruling Georgian Dream party, and parliament is expected to approve it.
The law is reminiscent of a series of similar pieces of legislation passed by the Kremlin under Putin.
In 2012, the Russian president signed off on a law tightening controls on civil rights groups funded from abroad, which was seen as an attempt to crack down on dissent. Last June, the Russian Duma approved another bill imposing draconian restrictions on individuals and organizations “under foreign influence.”
Georgia’s President Salome Zourabichvili, who is in the U.S. for an official visit, criticized the draft bill. “This law — which no one needed — does not come out of nowhere. It is something dictated by Moscow,” Zourabichvili said in a video address.
“The Georgia that sees its future in Europe will not allow anyone to take away this future,” she added, promising to veto the law — but the parliament has the right to overrule her.
The scenes of thousands of Georgians on the streets waving the EU’s blue flag evoked images that streamed out of Kyiv during the Euromaidan Revolution that started in 2013 in response to then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to suspend talks on an association agreement with the EU in favor of closer ties with Russia. Those demonstrations turned violent in late November 2013 when riot police attacked peaceful protesters in Independence Square; then in February 2014, snipers opened fire and killed dozens of Ukrainians. In the fallout, Yanukovych was forced to flee the country, and Putin sent troops to Crimea.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created growing fears of interference from Moscow in former Soviet republics — most notably in Moldova, whose pro-EU president has publicly exposed plans by the Kremlin to topple the government.
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, was also critical of the bill, which he called “a very bad development for Georgia and its people.”
“This law is incompatible with EU values and standards,” Borrell said in a statement. “Its final adoption may have serious repercussions on our relations.”
Georgia applied for EU membership last March, but was not granted candidate status, and will have to implement several reforms first — including strengthening the independence of the country’s judiciary. The government is also under pressure to release former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has been detained in Tbilisi for more than a year and appears to be in ill health, for treatment.
Yet, a growing number of Georgians fear that their government is moving closer to Moscow under Georgian Dream, which has been in power since 2012. The party’s founder, former chairman and ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, has close ties to Russia, where he built his fortune in the 1990s.
Officially no longer involved in politics, the billionaire is still widely seen as pulling the strings, and is considered responsible for Saakashvili’s imprisonment.
Georgia’s main opposition party, the United National Movement, has announced it would organize new protests on Rustaveli avenue — one of the main streets in Tbilisi, home to the Georgian parliament — on Wednesday afternoon.
“Every day will be like that,” said opposition leader Nika Melia, according to Georgian news agency InterPressNews. “No matter how many times they disperse us, no matter how much gas they use, we will gather again and again, and there should be more and more of us.”
66 people were arrested and more than 50 policemen were injured in Tuesday night’s protest, the Georgian interior ministry said in a statement Wednesday./Politico/