Georgia’s Ruling Party Vows to Kill Foreign Agent Bill after Mass Protests

Published: 09 March 2023

Georgia Protests Kill Bill 0323 30Thousands of protesters gathered in front of Georgian Parliament to protest against the controversial Foreign Agent Bill. (Photo: Mancho Gogoberidze/iFact - OCCRP Member Center)

By Nanuka Bregadze and Aidan Yusif

Pressed by two days of mass protests all across Georgia, the ruling Georgian Dream party reversed course, announcing its intention on Thursday to withdraw the controversial “foreign agent” bill, which had been unexpectedly passed on first reading two days earlier.

The legislation, called “On transparency of foreign influence,” would have forced NGOs and media outlets to register as “agents of foreign influence” or face stiff fines if they received more than 20% of their funding from abroad.

Critics feared that the bill would be used to crack down on civil society and free speech. On Tuesday and Wednesday, protests in the capital Tbilisi and other major cities attracted thousands of people.

“As a governing power responsible to each member of society, we have decided to withdraw the bill that we supported unconditionally, without any reservations,” the ruling party’s announcement reads. “As the emotional background subsides, we will better explain to the public what the bill was for and why it was important to ensure transparency of foreign influence in our country.”

Georgian Dream’s promise to withdraw the bill immediately raised procedural questions, however, because parliamentary rules offer no mechanism to withdraw a bill that has already come to a vote. The bill passed in its first reading and would have to go through two more rounds of voting before becoming law.

According to lawyer and chairman of Georgian Democracy Initiative (GDI), Eduard Marikashvili, the bill “must be first discussed in committee, and then it must be put to the vote at the plenary session,” where on second reading it will have to be voted down.

An alternate version of the bill called “On the registration of foreign agents” has not been put to a vote yet and can simply be withdrawn by its authors with an official letter, Marikashvili added.

The chairman of Georgian Dream’s parliamentary faction, Mamuka Mdinaradze, has vowed to kill both bills in exactly the manner described by Marikashvili. He also assured journalists that both versions had already been withdrawn from the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, where they had been submitted by Georgia for evaluation by European legal experts.

We have made a decision to refuse to support both drafts and withdraw them,” Mdinaradze said. “The parliamentary majority fully confirms and shares this decision."

It was Mdinaradze himself who initiated the unscheduled discussions of the bill on Tuesday which led to its approval in the first round of voting later that day.

After the ruling party’s announcement, a group of major NGOs published a joint statement demanding that parliament immediately hold a plenary session to vote down the bill. They also called for the immediate release of the over 130 demonstrators who were detained on Tuesday and Wednesday. Organizers promised that the protests would continue until these demands were met.

In response, parliament announced that due to the damage suffered by the parliament building during the protests, no plenary session would be held this week.

Russia’s notorious “foreign agent” law, 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.