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Protestors in Georgia clash with police over 'foreign agents' law

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Tbilisi, Georgia, today, thousands of demonstrators were chanting outside the parliament building, and police responded with water cannons and pepper spray.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS)

KHATIA DEKANOIDZE: There are a lot of people right now in front of the parliament of Georgia and Rustaveli Avenue - a lot of political parties, opposition, students, NGOs, civil society and just ordinary Georgia citizens.

SHAPIRO: That's Georgian member of parliament Khatia Dekanoidze, who we reached earlier today. The demonstrators are fighting proposed legislation that would force media and NGOs to register as foreign agents. Demonstrators see it as another shift towards Russian-style authoritarianism in a country that, like Ukraine, has been through its own invasion and occupation by Russian forces.

DEKANOIDZE: Conceptually, it's Russian law. Putin adopted this kind of law in 2012 and gradually killing civil society and NGOs.

SHAPIRO: Journalist Robin Forestier-Walker is covering the story from Tbilisi. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ROBIN FORESTIER-WALKER: Pleasure to speak to you.

SHAPIRO: Tell me what you've been seeing out there the last few days.

FORESTIER-WALKER: Yesterday was particularly shocking. We saw Molotov cocktails being thrown into ranks of police that were in body armor. And we saw the police callously using pepper spray to squirt in the faces of protesters that were standing right in front of them peacefully. And we saw people suffering from the effects of tear gas and water cannon. And we see that determination in people's faces. We see very angry young Georgians, but Georgians of different generations too, coming out to say, look; this is not in Georgia's interest. It's not in our interests - and their concern that the European Union has basically said that this is no way going to serve Georgia's interests in being accepted for candidate status of the European Union.

SHAPIRO: This is not the first protest in recent months or even years outside Georgia's parliament, but does what you're seeing this week feel different?

FORESTIER-WALKER: Well, it's really looking like very large numbers are back out on the streets. This government is unpopular with a large part of the society that believes it's taking the country away from its European aspirations. But this one feels different just because of the indignation and outrage at the way the government has tried to force through these laws. Because the law looks eerily similar to the ones that Russia introduced 10 years ago and targets civil society and the media and will have a very chilling effect on those groups, those organizations that do really hard work here to try to raise the level of Georgia's democratic status.

SHAPIRO: Georgia's president opposes the law and says that she would veto it if it passes. What does that mean?

FORESTIER-WALKER: Well, she promised to do so, but she is a bit of a figurehead, really, in terms of her abilities. She can veto, but the government can have its own vote in parliament to turn that veto around.

SHAPIRO: You know, in 2014, in Ukraine, there was also this push-pull between a pro-Russia and a pro-Europe movement. Do you see similarities to the point that Georgia could have a revolution along the same lines as the Euromaidan protest that drove out the Ukrainian government in 2014?

FORESTIER-WALKER: I do see some similarities. It does look reminiscent of what I personally saw back in 2014 in Kyiv during that period because I sense that the outrage is genuine. It isn't just about an opposition political party or group of parties that are trying to unite their own supporters. I see ordinary young Georgians, especially Western educated or English speaking, and there is a very large percentage of this population who are pro-European. Somewhere around 80% want to be part of Europe, and they are genuinely aggrieved to see their government introducing Russian-style laws to muzzle free speech, to muzzle alternative opinions and to basically really take control of this country in an authoritarian way. So if there is that groundswell, if it really exists and people really are angry enough, it wouldn't surprise me if this movement was able to continue its momentum.

But at the same time, this government has been extremely capable at manipulating another part of society that is very worried about a Georgia becoming too pro-Western and endangering this country, somehow dragging it into another front in this war with Russia. And it will be interesting to see whether the government is able to extract itself out of this situation now. But at the same time, I get a sense that a lot of Georgians really say enough is enough, that this law goes one step too far.

SHAPIRO: Journalist Robin Forestier-Walker reporting from Tbilisi, Georgia, on the protests happening there this week. Thank you very much.

FORESTIER-WALKER: It's been a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kai McNamee
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.