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Police in the Georgian capital Tbilisi break up protests against a foreign agents law

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The ruling party in the Eastern European country of Georgia appears to be bowing to two days of anti-government protests, where police deployed water cannon, tear gas and stun grenades. Journalist Mikheil Gvadzabia says he was assaulted by police this week.

MIKHEIL GVADZABIA: It was really bad, not only because, like, I was beaten, but it happened after we told them that we were journalists. And I had my press card on my neck. It was really scary.

MARTÍNEZ: But now a draft law that was criticized as a Russian-style crackdown on civil liberties and press freedoms is being withdrawn. Eto Buziashvili is a researcher at the Atlantic Council. She was also at the protests in the capital of Tbilisi.

Are you surprised about the ruling party's about-face on this proposed legislation?

ETO BUZIASHVILI: Hi. Thank you for having me. Before I jump to the question, I would like to highlight that there are three important factors to have in mind for the context. The first is that Georgian people have long been striving for Euro-Atlantic integration, which has the high majority support - basically, joining NATO and EU. Second, Georgian Dream-led government has been attempting to undermine this process and distance Georgia from the West. And the third - there is a strong and vocal civil society in Georgia, which has been doing their best to support this process of Euro-Atlantic integration and expose government's attempts to undermine rule of law and democracy. And this is the context when the foreign agents law is introduced, which basically intends to label media and civil society organizations that are recipient of the foreign funding as an agent of foreign influence. Basically, it mean that the civil society will be stigmaticized (ph), weakened and isolated. And it's crucial that Georgia has to have the strong civil society to advance democracy and get closer to the EU and NATO and not be isolated and the weakened one.

Yeah, so in this context, there is always the threat that the ruling party will pass this law any time. Many in Georgia perceive this move, the withdrawal, as a tactical retreat. According to Georgian legal experts, Parliament cannot just withdraw a law which was already passed in the first hearing. It means that the law will either be put on the shelf for some time or voted down in another hearing, which doesn't really have a high probability for now.

MARTÍNEZ: But why does the ruling party say it's backing down?

BUZIASHVILI: They didn't really elaborate on that. They are just saying that people are protesting and basically, they are not going into the details. They're just saying that we are withdrawing it. And again, it should be highlighted that it's not just a law. The ruling party has long been preparing Georgian society for this law in the information space via attempting to demonize and discredit free media and civil society organizations. And during this past two days, the ruling party was surprised to discover that people were not deceived with the propaganda and manipulation. And that's why we are now seeing that they are kind of withdrawing in a tactical retreat, and maybe they are buying time to regroup and try to disperse protest in this way.

MARTÍNEZ: But can this be seen as a win for the anti-government demonstrators in the capital?

BUZIASHVILI: Yeah. I mean, they see this as a kind of small win, but many people - the protesters are posting on social media that they should not calm down, and they should not take this as a big win because, again, there is always threat that the ruling party will pass this law again.

MARTÍNEZ: Eto Buziashvili is a researcher at the Atlantic Council in Tbilisi. Thank you.

BUZIASHVILI: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.