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Georgia parliament passes divisive 'foreign influence' bill

May 14, 2024

Politicians came to blows in parliament in Tblisi during the final reading of the bill. It has already caused weeks of protests and renewed warnings from the EU.

This photo taken from video, released by Mtavari Channel on Tuesday, May 14, 2024, shows Georgian lawmakers fighting during a parliament session in Tbilisi, Georgia. Georgia's parliament on Tuesday began the third and final reading of a divisive bill that sparked weeks of mass protests, with critics seeing it as a threat to democratic freedoms and the country's aspirations to join the European Union.
Some lawmakers came to blows during the final debate on the contentious new lawImage: Mtavari Channel/AP/picture alliance

The Georgian parliament on Tuesday approved in the third and final reading a divisive bill that sparked weeks of mass protests.

It requires media, NGOs, and other non-profits to declare themselves as "pursuing the interests of a foreign power" if they are more than 20% funded from outside Georgia. 

Critics have called it a threat to domestic freedoms and the country's aspirations to join the European Union. They have also drawn comparisons with comparable rules introduced in Russia in recent years. 

Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze recently defended the plans, saying the law was "solely aimed at promoting transparency and accountability."

Scuffles inside Georgia's parliament, protests outside

The bill passed by 84 votes in favor to 30 against.

A few politicians from the ruling Georgian Dream party and the opposition could be seen pushing each other and gesticulating at times during the heated debate.

Meanwhile, a crowd of around 2,000 people protested outside parliament on Tuesday, a regular sight in Tblisi in recent weeks.

Georgian law enforcement officers detain a demonstrator protesting the controversial "foreign influence" bill, near the parliament in Tbilisi on May 14, 2024.
Some of the demonstrators were detained by law enforcement near parliament on TuesdayImage: GIORGI ARJEVANIDZE/AFP

DW correspondent Maria Katamadze was outside the parliament in Tblisi on Tuesday. She said the government argues that it's trying to prevent the "Ukrainization" of the country by tracking mainly western investments, and to reduce the risk of escalating tensions with Russia. 

Meanwhile, she said that many of the demonstrators concurred with recent Western warnings that "Georgia's EU trajectory is at risk." She said many of the protesters said they believed the government was pretending to support eventual EU membership because of the high public support, while in fact trying to thwart the process.

How the EU and US reacted to Georgia's bill

European Council President Charles Michel commented on Georgia during a visit to a political conference in Copenhagen on Tuesday, prior to the vote clearing parliament. 

Michel said of politicians in Georgia that "if they want to join the EU, they have to respect the fundamental principles of the rule of law and the democratic principle." 

Georgia is one of nine current official candidates for EU membership. It was only granted the status recently, in November last year, with confirmation the following month.

The accession process tends to be a slow one, always taking years and sometimes decades.

"EU member countries are very clear that if this law is adopted it will be a serious obstacle for Georgia in its European perspective," EU spokesman Peter Stano meanwhile told reporters in Brussels. 

Protesters in Georgia defy government arrest warning

The White House issued a statement saying the US cold "reassess" its relations with Georgia if the bill passess into law. 

"We also know that the Georgian government has said it wants to join the EU and have a relationship with transatlantic organizations such as NATO," State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters later. "Things like this legislation, they are inconsistent with that stated goal," he said.

Can Georgia's president veto the foreign influence bill?

The bill is almost identical to one put forward last year by the Georgian Dream party, which it subsequently withdrew amid public protests. 

These protests have resurfaced at the second attempt, but the government has stuck with the plans. 

However, President Salome Zourabichvili told DW last month that she planned to veto the law, calling it a "copy" of Russian legislation introduced in the aftermath of Vladimir Putin's return to the role of president in 2012.

Should that happen, parliament has the power to overrule her veto with one last vote. 

Georgia’s 'foreign agent' law fuels mass protests

Independent since 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia is situated in the oil-rich Caucasus on Russia's southern border, with Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan to its south and east.

The country has two predominantly Russian-speaking breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia recognizes as sovereign states.

Russian troops entered Georgia and joined the fighting at the high point of these regions' battle for independence in 2008 where Georgia lost de facto control of territory.

msh/rm (AFP, AP, Reuters)