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Georgia in turmoil over media freedom

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Paris, March 10, 2023

Pro-European President Zourabichvili.

After three days of intense street protests in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, parliamentarians have  scrapped government plans which plainly echo the Russian “foreign agents” law which has stifled most of its own media. The protests were supported by Georgia’s Franco-Georgian and pro-European President Salome Zourabichvili.

Reuters’ says the implications of the law were – and may eventually be, pending a public consultation –  to “better explain to the public what the bill was for” :

  • Individuals, civil society organisations, and media outlets that receive 20% of their funding from abroad to register as an “agent of foreign influence,” thus squandering their credibility. 
  • Organisations would have to meet what Human Rights Watch described as “onerous reporting requirements and inspections” and face fines of up to 25,000 Georgian lari ($9,600) for failing to comply, with prison sentences of up to five years for repeated offences.
  • Swathes of Georgian civil society, including election monitors, corruption watchdogs, and independent media outlets would have been covered by the law. Government officials said the proposals were necessary to root out “foreign influence” and “spies”.

Parliamentary leaders also said the bill would help unmask critics of the powerful Georgian Orthodox Church. President Zourabichvili, a former French diplomat, said she would veto all this – though parliament could eventually overrule her.

Georgian MPs brawled in parliament during a hearing on the bill while tens of thousands  protested outside, chanting “no to the Russian law”. Some 400 Georgian NGOs signed a letter saying the bill was “an attack on Georgian values.” Here a Georgian journalist explains in a Reuters interview the mood among his colleagues, and why they have joined the protests: YouTube.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bill went against EU values and Georgia’s aim, frustrated till now, of joining the queue to join. Its adoption “may have serious repercussions on our relations,” Borrell said. The U.S. Helsinki Commission, a U.S. government agency, said the law demonstrated “the present government’s increasing embrace of Russia”. In Moscow there were official rumblings about alleged US interference.

Georgian society is strongly anti-Russian and pro-Ukrainian, following years of conflict over the status of two Russian-backed breakaway regions, which erupted in a short  war in 2008. 

Ivanishvili: ambiguous billionaire

Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream party has close relations with the Kremlin, but is nominally committed to Europe as well – a curiosity explained in a CEPS think tank analysis. The party’s founder, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, is Georgia’s richest man, returning home (and building a James-Bond-villain-style villa) with the fortune he amassed during the chaotic privatisations of the 1990s.

Tbilisi has not imposed sanctions on Moscow over the war in Ukraine, despite large-scale protests calling for a tougher line against Russia’s invasion. Several hundred thousand Russians afraid of being called up for the Ukraine war have taken refuge in the country. And the two countries have no formal diplomatic relations.

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