The Daily Beat: 9 March
After mass protests and violent clashes between the riot police and protestors, the ruling Georgian Dream party pledged to pull the bill from the legislative pipeline. In a morning statement, the ruling party said it would “unconditionally withdraw the bill we supported without any reservations” and thanked law enforcement officers for their “patience and professionalism.” It cited the need to reduce “confrontation” in society but denounced “lies” told about the bill by the “radical opposition.” Despite an apparent climbdown, the authors sounded unrepentant about the original intent: “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” as soon as “the emotions subside.”
Given the ruling party going back on its word only two days ago, credibility questions loom despite the assurances. The legal experts promptly pointed out that since the parliament adopted the foreign agents’ bill in the first plenary reading, it can no longer be withdrawn by the verbal statements of the MPs. The majority whip Mamuka Mdinaradze admitted that much at a press briefing but claimed the interpretation was purely ‘technical,’ and said the same majority that rammed through the bill on March 7 will vote against it “as soon as possible.”
As a sign of the ruling majority losing its credibility in the eyes of many Georgians, people came for the third day in a row to the massive rally, posing two demands: prompt scheduling of the parliamentary session to vote down the bill and the release of all those arrested during the two days of a heavy-handed crackdown by the police. Both demands were promptly met.
The Parliament said it would gather tomorrow, March 10, to schedule the second hearing of the “foreign agent” law and to vote on it around noon.
The police announced later that one hundred and thirty-three people arrested for administrative offenses during the protests were either released because their detention time had lapsed or after they appeared before a judge. Zurab Japaridze, chair of the opposition “Girchi” party, reportedly suffered injuries during the detention and was released today pending trial tomorrow. One person was charged with assaulting a law enforcement officer, carrying criminal liability, the police said, and won’t be released. Criminal investigations are ongoing against several others.
Moscow and its proxies in Sokhumi appeared to get worried about the mounting western support for the protests. Grigory Karasin, a former diplomat representing Russia in informal talks with Georgia, and the Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova both criticized the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, for what they see as pressuring Georgia. In the meantime, Inal Ardzinba, occupied Sokhumi’s top diplomat and former assistant at the Kremlin, has claimed that the United States will attempt to carry out a coup in Georgia in March.
Tbilisi Mayor and once ruling party heavyweight Kakhi Kaladze issued a late evening social media statement, treading the party line. He blamed the targeted disinformation campaign for confusing incredulous citizens, for stirring passions among youth, and bringing on general disorientation. He said Georgia is committed to the EU path. Kaladze, who was reportedly in Paris to celebrate his birthday, has checked in sick with Covid-19 as protests erupted in the capital.
Ned Price, the US State Department spokesperson, grabbed attention amidst the wave of Western criticism as he pointed to possible sanctions against Georgian leaders pushing the “foreign agent” bill through. Price said the U.S. holds “several tools at its purview to hold anyone accountable.” The UK Embassy in Tbilisi also pointed to the difficulty of continuing its programmatic and financial support to the government if the law were to be promulgated.
President Salome Zurabishvili congratulated the Georgian people on their first victory and welcomed the decision of the government to drop the bill. She described the unity of the people as the first step toward depolarization and pledged to remain with the people on their path to Europe. She has been in the U.S. throughout the unrest in Tbilisi, attending the UN event and giving interviews to the U.S. media.