Police Fire Tear Gas as Georgians Protest Foreign Agent Bill

Published: 07 March 2023

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Thousands of protesters gathered in front of parliament to protest foreign agent bill. (Photo: Marika Dudunia, OCCRP)

By Nanuka Bregadze and Aidan Iusubova

Police fired tear gas at thousands of protesters in front of the parliament building in Tbilisi on Tuesday as lawmakers passed on first reading the controversial “foreign agent” bill which many fear could be used to crack down on independent media and civil society.

The proposed legislation will force NGOs and media outlets to register as “agents of foreign influence” or face stiff fines if they receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad.

Discussion of the bill was scheduled for March 9, but an MP from the ruling Georgian Dream party, Mamuka Mdinaradze, unexpectedly proposed on Tuesday commencing discussions immediately. Later in the day, the bill was passed in the first reading by a vote of 76 to 13.

It will now be submitted to the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission for evaluation and will have to pass through two more rounds of voting before coming into force.

The bill was proposed by a parliamentary faction called People’s Power which split from Georgian Dream last year, remaining closely allied to it but spouting much more hostile anti-Western rhetoric.

Thousands of protesters descended on parliament as discussions of the bill began. The police, augmented by Georgian special forces, pushed the crowd away from the entrance to the building using tear gas and water cannons.

“At first we will be assigned the status of an agent,” Gia Japaridze, former diplomat and lecturer at the University of Georgia, told OCCRP outside the parliament building. “Then they will say why should agents be able to give lectures? This is a law for total state capture.”

The so-called “Foreign Agent” bill exists in two drafts — one that was passed in first reading on Tuesday called “On transparency of foreign influence,” and a second one mostly translated from the American Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), “On the registration of foreign agents.” The fate of the latter is unknown.

The draft that has passed in this preliminary vote requires any non-commercial legal entity to register as a foreign agent if it receives over 20% of its funding from a foreign government, legal entity, or individual.

The notorious “foreign agent” law in Russia, adopted in 2012, has been used by authorities there to wipe out free speech and civil society, and Georgia is the latest of several countries in the region to consider adopting similar legislation, raising fears of similar results.