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Georgia | Thousands protest despite withdrawal of repressive bill



(Tbilisi) Several tens of thousands of people gathered Thursday evening in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, after two days of protests and clashes with the police to denounce a repressive bill, which the government renounced earlier in the day.

President Salomé Zurabishvili, a pro-Western critic of her country’s government, but whose powers are limited, for her part hailed the “victory” of the demonstrators.

“I want to congratulate society on its first victory, I am proud of these people who made their voices heard,” she said in a televised address from New York.

In the process, the Ministry of the Interior announced “the release” of demonstrators arrested since Tuesday, thus responding to one of the requests of the opposition.

“Investigations are underway to determine, identify and arrest those who attacked the police,” the ministry said in a statement.

Among the crowd gathered Thursday in downtown Tbilisi, many waved Georgian, Ukrainian and EU flags. “Ode to Joy”, the European anthem, was also sung.

“Our government is our only obstacle to joining the EU,” laments Eka Kamkamidze, a 39-year-old mathematician. “Either they quit and Georgia joins Europe, or they stay in power and we fall prey to Putin.”

The demonstrators, including many students, responded to the call of several opposition parties, despite the withdrawal earlier Thursday by the ruling party “Georgian Dream”, of a bill deemed repressive by its detractors.

Georgia’s opposition is scheduled to meet at noon on Friday, when parliament is due to officially withdraw the bill.

“Nothing to do with it”

The Georgian government is accused of wanting to introduce legislation inspired by the Russian model to classify as “foreign agents” NGOs and media receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad, on pain of a fine.

A former Soviet republic in the Caucasus, Georgia has been shaken for years by a political crisis symptomatic of its tug of war between Europe and Russia. Moscow and Tbilisi clashed in 2008 in a short war won by the Russian army.

Faced with the troubles that agitate this neighboring country, the Kremlin said Thursday “concerned”, while denying any link with the bill on “foreign agents”.

“The Kremlin has absolutely nothing to do with it,” its spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, as protesters compared the Georgian plan with the law in force in Russia which serves to suppress all critical voices.

The European Union delegation in Georgia welcomed the announcement of the withdrawal of the text, urging the government to “resume pro-European reforms”.

In its press release, the Georgian Dream believes that the bill has been “misrepresented in a bad light”, adding that it would launch public consultations to “better explain” the purpose of this text.

“Attachment to democratic values”

These demonstrations are part of a broader context of political crisis.

Tbilisi officially aims to join the EU and NATO, an orientation taken after the “Rose Revolution” of 2003 which brought to power the pro-Western Mikheil Saakashvili, now an opponent and imprisoned.

But several recent moves by the current government, such as the “foreign agents” bill, have cast doubt on whether pro-Western aspirations will continue, with the opposition accusing it of backing Moscow.

On Thursday evening, the United States said it “welcomed” the abandonment of the bill which “goes against Euro-Atlantic values”, while calling on the government to “withdraw it completely”.

French President Emmanuel Macron congratulated himself that “the attachment of Georgians to democratic values, freedom of the press and freedom of association, has been heard”.

For Thomas de Waal, Caucasus specialist at the Carnegie Europe research center, how Georgia emerges from the current crisis could be decisive for its future.

“This is an important moment for Georgia, which is still a democracy, but a struggling democracy,” he said.

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