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Georgia: Thousands protest as 'foreign agent' bill advances

May 1, 2024

Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream party is a step closer to pushing through a law that could undermine the country's ambition to join the EU. It comes despite weeks of demonstrations and warnings from Brussels.

Demonstrators argue with police that blocked them during an opposition protest near the Parliament building in Tbilisi,
Sixty-three people were detained overnight for protesting against the billImage: Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP Photo/picture alliance

Amidst intense clashes inside and outside Georgia's parliament, lawmakers passed Wednesday's second reading of the controversial "foreign influence" bill.

The proposed law would require media and non-commercial organizations to register as "pursuing the interests of a foreign power" if they receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad.

Critics say it resembles a Russian law used to silence dissent and stifle independent news media.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze's ruling Georgian Dream party is determined to get the bill signed into law by mid-May.

Scuffles in parliament

Wednesday's vote in Georgia's parliament was tense. There were scuffles between legislators, and opposition members were expelled.

Georgian television showed one pro-government deputy throwing a book at opposition legislators while others shouted and physically confronted opponents.

Thousands of people also gathered outside the parliament building late on Wednesday, many of them waving Georgian and EU flags.

Demonstrators blocked by the police wave a EU flag during an opposition protest
Thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the parliament building to protest against the changeImage: Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP Photo/picture alliance

Lawmakers voted 83 to 23 to adopt the bill in a second reading of three readings needed before it could be sent to the president for his signature to become law.

President Salome Zurabishvili is widely expected to veto the measure, but the ruling party has enough seats in parliament to override it.

Weeks of protests

Protests against the bill began in mid-April, with a largely youth-led pro-EU protest movement clashing with security forces on several occasions. Protesters condemn what they see as a Russian-inspired law.

On Tuesday, 63 protesters were arrested, and security forces used water cannon, tear gas, and stun grenades to break up a demonstration against the bill.

Dozens held after latest protests and violence in Georgia

Levan Khabeishvili, leader of the United National Movement party, Georgia's largest opposition bloc, was heavily bandaged when he spoke in parliament on Wednesday.

His party said police had assaulted him during the protests.

"If you are not interested in how the leader of the main opposition party has been beaten up, then — for the sake of those young people who were injured, who were hit on the heads and bruised — I want to ask you once more, even though I do not have any hope, withdraw this law," he said.

Deputy Interior Minister Aleksandre Darakhvelidze said Khabeishvili broke through a police cordon the night before and was injured while he "resisted."

The European Union, which gave Georgia candidate member status in December, said the bill could halt its integration into the bloc.

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, on Wednesday expressed "great concern" over the situation.

"I am following the situation in Georgia with great concern and condemn the violence on the streets of Tbilisi," von der Leyen wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

The Georgian Dream party has been accused of attempting to steer the former Soviet republic closer to Russia.

lo/nm (AFP, Reuters)