Georgia protests over foreign agents bill continue into second day
Tens of thousands of people gathered outside Georgia’s parliament on Wednesday in a second day of protests in the capital Tbilisi over a draft “foreign representatives” bill that critics fear could drive a wedge between the country’s Caucasian and European.
Protesters could be seen waving the flag of the European Union – which Georgia joined last year – and the flag of the United States and Ukraine, as well as the flag of Georgia. Social media videos also showed some protesters throwing stones at the building’s windows and trying to break a protective barrier, with police using water cannons and tear gas.
The controversial bill would require organizations that get 20 percent or more of their annual revenue from abroad to register as “foreign agents” or face heavy fines – a proposal that rights experts warn will adversely affect the country’s civil society and harm its democracy. .
The ruling Georgian Dream party has said the bill is modeled on US legislation, Reuters reports. But critics say it reflects a controversial law in neighboring Russia that underpins draconian restrictions and requirements on groups and individuals with foreign ties.
The bill passed the first reading on Tuesday in the legislature and there are several other steps before it becomes law. Its final passage is considered likely, however, as the bill has strong support among lawmakers.
In a statement on Wednesday, the Georgian Ministry of Interior “called on the activists, organizers and political leaders not to go beyond the limits indicated by the law on freedom of assembly and expression .”
At least 76 people were arrested in connection with Tuesday’s protests.
Georgia has long struck a delicate balance between the anti-European sentiment of its citizens and the geopolitical ambitions of its powerful neighbour, Russia.
But an EU statement on Tuesday warned that the law would be “incompatible with EU values and standards” and could have “significant consequences for our relations.”
Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili said she thought the bill “looks very similar to Russian politics.”
“This law is unnecessary, it does not come from anywhere. No one has asked,” Zourabichvili told CNN’s Isa Soares on Wednesday.
Zourabichvili has vowed to veto the bill. But the government with the Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has a high level of power.
Georgia applied for EU membership in March 2022. Although it has not been granted applicant status, the European Council has said it is willing to grant that status if Georgia implements some reforms.
“For Georgia, there have been special conditions that are very much linked to democratic qualifications for democratic reforms,” European Union Deputy Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič told CNN.
Since then, the bloc’s member states have had “very intense discussions” about Georgia’s claim, Šefčovič said, speaking to CNN’s Richard Quest on Wednesday.
The United States has said it is “deeply troubled” by the bill, with State Department spokesman Ned Price on Wednesday saying it was “Kremlin-inspired”.
“The manner in which the Parliament is advancing these Kremlin-promoted draft laws is incompatible with the clear desire of the Georgian people for European integration and its democratic development,” said Price.
Meanwhile Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke directly to Georgian protesters, thanking them on Wednesday for raising his country’s flag during the demonstrations and wishing them “democratic success”.
“I want to thank everyone who has been holding Ukrainian flags in the squares and streets of Georgia these days,” Zelensky said.
“We want to be in the European Union and we will be. We want Georgia to be in the European Union, and I’m sure it will be,” Zelensky said later. “We want Moldova to be in the European Union, and I’m sure it will be.” Every free people in Europe deserves this.”