“Pray Georgia is protected from internal and external forces who want to undermine its freedom”
The protests helped reverse a 'foreign agent' law that would have had a negative impact on churches, say evangelicals in the Eastern European country.
Protestante Digital · TBILISI · 15 MARCH 2023 · 17:26 CET
Georgia has experienced in recent days the largest demonstrations in years.
The main reason for the protests by thousands of citizens is the draft law on “foreign agents”. According to sources in the country, this law would have the effect of repressing government dissidents.
Although the government, mainly led by the Social-Democratic Georgian Dream coalition, announced the withdrawal of the law, tension continues over the uncertainty of the status of the country's bid for European Union membership, which is an important issue for Georgians.
Data published in February 2023 by the US National Democratic Institute (NDI) show that up to 81% of the population in Georgia is in favour of joining the EU. The figure decreases for NATO, although it still stands at a large majority (73 %).
“For some time Georgia’s main foreign policy goals are to join NATO and the EU. But the current government is backtracking on those goals, and previous democratic gains are slowly being undone”, says to Spanish news website Protestante Digital the Canadian Bart Byl, who serves as pastor of the International Christian Community church in the capital, Tbilisi.
Draft law against "foreign agents”
Commonly known as the law against “foreign agents”, the draft legislation supported by the Georgian government looked similar to the law that Russia passed in 2012, which obliged foreign organisations operating in the country to expand the documentation they had to provide and to submit to government audits.
The Tbilisi Bill, which has already been withdrawn by the government, considered any entity or individual that received at least 20% of its funding from outside the country as a 'foreign agent'.
The rule was officially justified as a transparency measure but was seen by critics as a tool of repression against dissidents and freedoms.
Crackdown on protest against Russia-style 'foreign agents' law in Tbilisi in pictures pic.twitter.com/5xDNdtLZP5— Formula NEWS | English (@FormulaGe) March 8, 2023
Pastor Byl explains: “The first reading of the law on foreign agents was passed by a large majority of MPs. But this unleashed massive public protests in the capital, Tbilisi, which seem to have taken the government off guard”.
The Canadian adds that “the law is modeled on Russia’s 2012 law, which was used to limit the influence of pro-Western NGOs, and to suppress civil society and the freedom of the press. The Georgian people are deeply suspicious of Russia, which still occupies 20% of Georgian territory”.
“The law was seen by the public as a disturbing lurch toward Putin-style authoritarianism, and Georgia has suffered too much to begin losing its freedom”, adds Byl.
How did the draft law affect religious freedom?
Several evangelical communities in Georgia have spoken publicly against a draft law that fully affected them, as some churches and denominations receive funding from beyond the country's borders.
The pastor and President of the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptist Churches of Georgia, Gia Kandelaki, stresses: “We do not agree with this draft law. We do not interfere in politics, but if this law is passed it will affect us too. We have partnerships with churches and organisations outside the country and we could be labelled as [foreign] agents”.
Byl underlines that the majority of members of his international church are foreigners and they “are concerned that the help of foreign churches and organisations for our work might be labeled as something sinister”.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, the churches turned foreign donations into food parcels that were distributed to hungry families who had lost their income. Laws like this would make that work much more difficult”.
The conflict between West and East
Despite the withdrawal of the law, tension continues over the uncertainty of what will now happen to Georgia's EU membership bid.
Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili's government formally applied for EU membership in March 2022, but in June 2022 the Council of Europe discussed Georgia's application and agreed that it would not grant 'candidate country' status until the 'priorities specified in the Commission's opinion' were met.
“The announcement to withdraw the draft law on 'transparency of foreign influence' is a good sign; now concrete legal steps need to follow”, said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
The Canadian pastor in Tbilisi points out that “since 2003, the ex-Soviet state of Georgia has been much safer and freer than its neighbours. It has looked to the West for security, since 20% of Georgian territory is under Russian occupation”.
“Most Georgians passionately desire to become part of the EU. Article 78 of the Constitution states that the constitutional bodies shall take all measures within the scope of their competences to ensure the full integration of Georgia into the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization”, he adds.
The desire to move closer to the West clashes with Georgian society's concern for the preservation of its traditional values. That is why there were also demonstrations against Brussels, with the burning of the EU flag.
According to Byl, “although Georgians care deeply about freedom and democracy, Georgia is also a deeply religious country. There are conflicting feelings about what the West brings: desire for prosperity and democracy is mixed with concern about secular values eroding Georgia’s Christian culture”.
Pray for Georgia
Byl asks Christians worldwide “to pray that God will raise up leaders who truly have the interest of Georgia at heart” and that “he would protect Georgia from internal and external forces who want to undermine its freedom”.
“Please also pray that God would help Georgia figure out how to build a prosperous, free society without losing its soul, and that evangelical and Orthodox Christians in government, politics and civil society would shine Christ’s light in a toxic and divided situation”, he adds.
Another situation like Ukraine?
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently claimed that “there is not a Ukrainian who does not wish success to our friend Georgia”, describing the protests as a “democratic success”. Those words did not sit well in Tbilisi.
“When a person at war finds time to comment on a destructive demonstration of several thousand people, this is clear evidence that he is interested in making something happen here and bring about change”, said Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili of the majority Georgian Dream party, a coalition formed by former prime minister and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who some analysts point to as Georgia's shadow power strongman.
Byl explains that “although the government has been forced to abandon the bill, it is not backing down on its rhetoric”. With elections in October, the tension in the political situation is not expected to ease.
“Unfortunately, there are few politicians who seem to seek the good of the nation rather than partisan advantage. A recent poll showed that 61% of Georgian voters do not think that any party represents their interests", Byl concludes.
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