Georgian protesters against ‘Russia-style’ law mark Orthodox Easter with vigil

Critics see the media law as a threat to press freedom and Georgia’s aspirations to join the European Union.

Critics fear the law may stifle media freedom (Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP)
Critics fear the law may stifle media freedom (Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP) (Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP)

Several thousand Georgians marked Orthodox Easter with a candlelight vigil outside the nation’s parliament on Saturday evening.

Daily protests continue against a proposed law that critics see as a threat to media freedom and the country’s aspirations to join the European Union.

The proposed Bill would require media, non-governmental organisations and other non-profits to register as “pursuing the interests of a foreign power” if they receive more than 20% of their funding abroad.

Protesters and the Georgian opposition denounce it as “the Russian law”, saying Moscow uses similar legislation to stigmatise independent journalists and those critical of the Kremlin.

Demonstrators crowded along a broad avenue in Tbilisi late on Saturday, clutching Georgian and EU flags, as a small choir sang Easter songs and activists bustled about distributing food, including hand-painted eggs and traditional Easter cakes.

Unlike at mass rallies earlier in the week, which met with heavy police response, the atmosphere was peaceful. Unarmed police officers stationed sparsely at the vigil’s sidelines received festive foods along with the protesters.

Demonstrators with Georgian and EU flags holding candles stand in front of the Kashveti Church of St George (Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP)
Demonstrators with Georgian and EU flags holding candles stand in front of the Kashveti Church of St George (Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP) (Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP)

Most Western churches observe Easter on April 9, but Orthodox Christians in Georgia, Russia and elsewhere follow a different calendar.

“It is the most extraordinary Easter I have ever witnessed. The feeling of solidarity is overwhelming, but we should not forget about the main issue,” activist Lika Chachua told the Associated Press, referring to the proposed legislation.

The legislature approved the Bill’s second reading on Wednesday. The third and final reading is expected later this month.

The proposal is nearly identical to a measure that the governing Georgian Dream party was pressured to withdraw last year after large street protests.

Georgian Dream argues that the Bill is necessary to stem what it deems harmful foreign influence over the country’s political scene and to prevent unidentified foreign actors from trying to destabilise it.

However, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell described the parliament’s move as “a very concerning development” and warned that “final adoption of this legislation would negatively impact Georgia’s progress on its EU path”.

Russia-Georgia relations have been strained and turbulent since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the two fought a brief war in 2008 that ended with Georgia losing control over two Russia-friendly separatist regions.

In the aftermath, Tbilisi severed diplomatic ties with Moscow, and the issue of the region’s status remains a key irritant, even as relations have somewhat improved.

The opposition United National Movement accuses Georgian Dream, founded by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire who made his fortune in Russia, of serving Moscow’s interests. The governing party vehemently denies that.