Thousands protest after Georgia Parliament passes ‘foreign agents’ bill

The bill requires organisations receiving at least 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as foreign agents.

A demonstrator holds a Georgian flag during a rally to protest against a bill on 'foreign agents' in Tbilisi [Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters]

Thousands of protesters have rallied in Georgia after its parliament passed the third and final reading of a bill on “foreign agents” despite warnings from Brussels that its passage could harm the country’s bid to join the European Union.

There were confrontations between riot police and protesters outside the parliament building on Tuesday after lawmakers voted 84 to 30 to pass the bill, clearing a major hurdle for the legislation to become law.

“This law is taking away my future,” 19-year-old protester Anano Plievi told the Agence France-Presse news agency outside parliament.

“I am angry and proud of all these people at the same time. We are going to keep going towards Europe.”

Al Jazeera’s Dmitry Medvedenko, reporting from Tbilisi, said the “frustration of these people was quite real”.

“The whole square, … the whole area in front of parliament is filled with people once again in a show of determination,” Medvedenko said.

Police said they would “tear-gas anyone who doesn’t move away”, he said.

According to Medvedenko, protesters said they will continue coming out “tonight, tomorrow, probably the next day” to make their voices heard.

Earlier, scuffles even broke out inside the parliament chamber as opposition lawmakers clashed with members of the governing Georgian Dream party.

The draft now goes to President Salome Zourabichvili, who has said she will veto it, but her decision can be overridden by another vote in parliament, which is controlled by Georgian Dream and its allies.

The party’s push for the legislation has plunged the country in the South Caucasus into an extended political crisis.

The bill requires media and NGOs to register as “pursuing the interests of a foreign power” if they receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad. It is seen by many as influenced by similar legislation in Russia, which has been used to clamp down on the Kremlin’s political opponents.

Critics insist it poses a threat to democratic freedoms and the country’s aspirations to join the EU.

Georgian Dream was forced by mass protests to withdraw the bill last year. The revised effort to push the legislation through has again provoked huge demonstrations.

The government says the bill is needed to promote transparency, combat “pseudo-liberal values” promoted by foreigners and preserve Georgia’s sovereignty. Critics accuse the governing party of seeking to pull the country away from its European aspirations and back towards Moscow.

Demonstrations have been held for weeks, peaking in the evening, when crowds numbering in the tens of thousands have mounted some of the biggest protests seen in Georgia since it regained independence from Moscow in 1991.

Tbilisi protest
Demonstrators take part in a rally to protest against a bill on ‘foreign agents’ in Tbilisi [Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters]

The EU, which gave Georgia candidate status in December, has repeatedly said the bill will be a barrier to Tbilisi’s further integration with the bloc.

European Council President Charles Michel said on Tuesday that “if they want to join the EU, they have to respect the fundamental principles of the rule of law and the democratic principles”.

Georgian Dream insists it still has ambitions of joining both the EU and NATO, even as it has adopted harsh anti-Western rhetoric in recent months.

Polls show Georgian public opinion is strongly supportive of EU integration while many Georgians are hostile to Russia over Moscow’s support for the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and France have all urged Georgia to withdraw the bill.

The Kremlin, which denies any role in inspiring the Georgian bill, said on Tuesday that the crisis was Tbilisi’s internal affair and accused outside powers of meddling.

“We see an unveiled intervention in the internal affairs of Georgia from the outside,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.

“This is an internal matter of Georgia. We do not want to interfere there in any way.”

Source: News Agencies