Georgia Protests Quiet Down as Government Pulls Back Russian-Style Law

TBILISI, Georgia — Tensions in the Caucasian republic of Georgia subsided on Thursday as quickly as they had flared, but opposition leaders and others who had flooded the central avenue in the capital, Tbilisi, for two consecutive nights warned that their fight was far from over.

Calm returned to the capital city and others throughout the country after the government said it would withdraw a proposed law that its critics had branded a Kremlin-inspired effort to undermine democracy. But the opponents said the government had not abandoned its plans to use techniques pioneered by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to clamp down on civil society.

The events in Georgia echoed those in Ukraine in 2013, when the kleptocratic, Kremlin-aligned government of President Viktor F. Yanukovych backed away from signing a trade deal with the European Union. That outraged a nation eager for closer relations with the West, igniting protests and violent clashes with the police that in early 2014 brought down the government and sent Mr. Yanukovych into exile in Russia.

In Georgia, where most people also favor stronger relations with Europe, the spark for protests was an innocuous-sounding proposed law “on transparency and foreign influence.” The measure would require civil society groups and news media outlets register as “agents of foreign influence” if they received more than 20 percent of their funding from “a foreign power,” or else face hefty fines.

But it quickly ran into resistance. There were two nights of large protests in Tbilisi, with riot police officers who used tear gas, water cannons and stun grenades to disperse crowds. In a statement on Thursday, the police said they had detained 133 protesters on charges of petty hooliganism and disobedience during the two days of protests.

On Thursday, even after protests had died down, 82 journalists and activists who had received the foreign-agent label in Russia signed a petition to the Georgian government, asking it to refrain from passing the law. They said that in Russia, “the inclusion in the list of foreign agents means civic death.”

“We do not trust the promises of the ruling party, which it often gives just to defuse protests,” Nino Lomjaria, a former public defender rallying in front of Parliament, told The Associated Press on Thursday.

Representatives of the European Union, which in June declined to approve Georgia’s candidacy, said that the law would be likely to put an end to Georgia’s aspirations to join the bloc and NATO. On Thursday, the E.U. delegation to Georgia said that it welcomed the decision to withdraw the law and encouraged “all political leaders in Georgia to resume pro-E.U. reforms.”

The country’s French-born president, Salome Zourabichvili, said in a speech to the nation on Thursday that the government’s decision to scrap the bill constituted “an important victory” for the country’s “entire society,” which demonstrated unity that would eventually bring it into Europe.

Others were not so sure.

Not willing to risk a confrontation like that in Ukraine a decade ago, the ruling Georgian Dream party decided to stage a “tactical retreat,” said Ghia Nodia, a professor of politics at the Ilia Chavchavadze State University in Tbilisi.

Nevertheless, many in the Georgian Dream party still see the country’s civil society as “just a puppet of the West,” he said, and therefore will not give up their attempts to regulate it.

But the party, widely believed to be controlled by Bidzina Ivanishvili — a reclusive billionaire who made much of his money in Russia — suddenly faced criticism “from too many corners, including their own supporters,” said Mr. Nodia, forcing it to back down.

“The protest was against what people called a Russian law, but it was also against the Russian government,” Mr. Nodia said in an interview, referring to a popular belief in Georgia that despite the Georgian government’s official pro-NATO and Western rhetoric, it is secretly subservient to the Kremlin.

In its statement announcing the decision to scrap the bill, critics noted, the ruling party did not question its purpose but blamed the opposition and its “lying machine” for stirring up protests by attaching to it the “false label of a ‘Russian law.’” 

Falling short of rejecting the idea of placing controls on civil society, the ruling party said that its main failure had been in explaining the law properly to the public. As soon as the “emotional background subsides,” the statement said, the party would do its best to clarify “what purpose the bill served and why it was important to ensure transparency of foreign influence in our country.” 

But the statement seemed only to deepen the opposition’s suspicions.

Despite having been forced to back down in the face of the protests, the government is likely to try again in the future with a more subtle approach, said Paata Zakareishvili, a former government minister who has since parted ways with Georgian Dream.

The Georgian government long ago learned the rules of the game, which is “not to support Russia openly,” he said in an interview, adding that “they only pretend that they are pro-Western.” In reality, he said, referring to the country’s stalled path toward joining the European Union and NATO, “they are playing soccer but they never score goals.”

For instance, he said, Georgia has always voted against Russia at the United Nations, condemning Moscow’s aggression of Ukraine. But it has also refrained from imposing sanctions and has allowed its highways to be used to transport goods that can no longer reach Russia directly from Europe.

A country of 3.6 million, Georgia fought a painful war with Russia after Moscow invaded in 2008. Since then, the Kremlin has maintained control over about 20 percent of its territory, with troops stationed about 100 miles from the capital. Yet the military victory over Georgia came at the cost of alienating many Georgians, especially younger ones. 

Today, many of them see their country’s departure from the grips of its old imperial master as an issue of overriding importance that will determine their future.

“We were part of Russia for centuries, but I state that now is the time for freedom,” said Saba Pruidze, 19, a slender, bespectacled protester. “Real freedom.” 

Source: Read Full Article