Georgia’s government abandons Putin-style bill that triggered huge protests

Government says it has decided to ‘unconditionally withdraw’ controversial law after huge demonstrations broke out in Tbilisi.

Georgia’s government has “decided to unconditionally withdraw” a controversial bill that sparked massive protests, according to a statement published Thursday.

The government’s U-turn came after thousands of Georgians took to the streets of the country’s capital Tbilisi for two days of protests, waving EU flags and facing down riot police armed with water cannons and tear gas. The contentious legislation would have required all organizations that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as foreign agents.

The Georgian law was widely viewed as inspired by Vladimir Putin’s regime in Moscow: In 2012, the Russian president signed off on legislation tightening controls on civil rights groups funded from abroad, which was seen as an attempt to crack down on dissent; last June, the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, approved another bill imposing draconian restrictions on individuals and organizations “under foreign influence.”

The withdrawal of the bill is a blow for Putin, who has long viewed Georgia, a former Soviet state, as within Russia’s sphere of influence.

Georgia’s President Salome Zourabichvili, who was in the U.S. for an official visit when protests first broke out Tuesday, called the draft law “something dictated by Moscow” in a video address.

In footage and photographs from the protests in Georgia, crowds chanted “down with the Russian law.”

“We see that the adopted draft law has caused differences of opinion in society,” said Thursday’s statement, in which the Georgian Dream party announced it would be abandoning the proposed law “unconditionally.”

But the party, along with its ruling coalition partners, added that a “machine of lies was able to present the bill in a negative light and mislead a certain part of the public.”

The statement continued: “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. To do this, we will start meetings with the population and let the general public know the truth about each and every detail of the issue.”

In a post on Twitter, the EU delegation to Georgia welcomed the announcement, adding: “We encourage all political leaders in Georgia to resume pro-EU reforms, in an inclusive & constructive way and in line with the 12 priorities for Georgia to achieve candidate status.”

Georgia applied for EU membership last March, but was not granted candidate status, and will have to implement several reforms first — including strengthening the independence of its judiciary.

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, had been critical of the Georgian bill, which he called “a very bad development for Georgia and its people,” and labeled it “incompatible with EU values and standards.” In a statement, Borrell said that if the bill was adopted, it “may have serious repercussions on our relations.”

The scenes of thousands of Georgians on the streets for two successive days of protests this week, waving EU flags as they faced down against riot police, were reminiscent of Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution, which started in 2013 in response to then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to suspend talks on an association agreement with the EU, in favor of closer ties with Russia.

Those demonstrations turned violent in late November 2013 when riot police attacked peaceful protesters in Kyiv’s Independence Square; then in February 2014, snipers opened fire and killed dozens of Ukrainians. In the fallout, Yanukovych was forced to flee the country, and Putin sent troops to Crimea.