Thousands rally in Georgia as parliament debates ‘foreign influence’ law

Georgian lawmakers on Tuesday agreed on an early draft of a controversial “foreign influence” bill, sparking fresh street protests against the legislation criticized for mirroring a repressive Russian law.

The bill has sparked outrage in Georgia and concern in the West, with many arguing it undermines Georgia’s bid for European Union membership.

Lawmakers voted 78 to 25 to move the draft bill on for further debate.

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, who is at loggerheads with the ruling party, condemned the move as “against the will of the population.”

It “is a direct provocation — a Russian strategy of destabilization,” she said.

Thousands rallied in the evening outside the parliament building in Tbilisi, blocking traffic on the main thoroughfare of the Georgian capital, whistling, and shouting, “No to the Russian law!”

Riot police cordoned off entrances to the legislature, and demonstrators briefly scuffled with them, attempting to push against the police line, an AFP journalist witnessed.

Police used pepper spray against the crowds, and several protestors were detained. A water cannon was also on standby.

The Interior Ministry said one police officer had been injured.

In chaotic scenes past midnight, riot police chased protesters in the labyrinth of narrow streets near parliament, beating them and making arrests.

Several local media outlets said police had attacked their journalists.

University student Kote Tatishvili, one of the demonstrators, said, “Georgians will never accept this Russian law.”

“We, peaceful demonstrators, will prevail, we will force Russian stooges in the Georgian Dream [ruling party] to withdraw the law,” he said.

A day earlier, police had detained 14 demonstrators as some 10,000 people took to the streets.

The European Union has called on Tbilisi not to pass the legislation, saying it contradicts the democratic reforms the country is required to pursue to progress on its path towards EU membership.

Renewing Brussels’ criticism of the proposals, EU chief Charles Michel said Tuesday: “The draft Law on Transparency of Foreign Influence is not consistent with Georgia’s EU aspiration and its accession trajectory.”

It “will bring Georgia further away from the EU and not closer,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Amnesty International urged Georgian authorities to “immediately stop their incessant efforts to impose repressive legislation on the country’s vibrant civil society.”

It said the draft law “poses a direct threat to the rights to freedom of association and expression.”

‘Derail from European path’

The ruling Georgian Dream party controls 84 seats in the 150-member legislature and can pass the law without opposition backing.

If adopted, the bill would require any independent NGO and media organization that receives more than 20% of funding from abroad to register as an “organization pursuing the interests of a foreign power.”

That was a change from last year’s proposal, which used the term “agent of foreign influence.”

The term “foreign agent” is rooted in the Soviet past and suggests such people are traitors and enemies of the state.

A similar law is used in Russia to punish government critics and suffocate independent media.

In December, the EU granted Georgia official candidate status but said Tbilisi would have to reform its judicial and electoral systems, reduce political polarization, improve press freedom, and curtail the power of oligarchs before membership talks are formally launched.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said last week that passing the law would “derail Georgia from its European path.”

The ruling party was forced to drop a similar measure last year, following mass protests that saw police use water cannon and tear gas against demonstrators.

Then in a surprise move ahead of October’s parliamentary elections seen as a key democratic test, it reintroduced the bill in parliament earlier this month.

A former Soviet republic, Georgia has sought for years to deepen relations with the West, but the current ruling party is accused of trying to steer the Black Sea nation toward closer ties with Russia.

Once seen as leading the democratic transformation of ex-Soviet countries, Georgia has in recent years been criticized for perceived democratic backsliding.

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