May 19th, 2024

Georgian lawmakers approve a divisive foreign influence bill that has sparked weeks of protests

By Sophiko Megrelidze, The Associated Press on May 14, 2024.

A demonstrator wears a national flag as she argues with the police that blocked the road towards the Parliament building during an opposition protest against "the Russian law" in the center of Tbilisi, Georgia, on Monday, May 13, 2024. Daily protests are continuing against a proposed bill that critics say would stifle media freedom and obstruct the country's bid to join the European Union. (AP Photo/Shakh Aivazov)

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) – Georgian lawmakers on Tuesday approved a “foreign influence” bill that sparked weeks of mass protests, with critics seeing it as a Russian-style threat to free speech and the country’s aspirations to join the European Union.

After the 84-30 vote, a crowd of protesters in front of parliament tried to break metal barriers near the building, and some reportedly were detained by police.

The bill requires media and nongovernmental organizations and other nonprofit groups to register as “pursuing the interests of a foreign power” if they receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad.

The government says the bill is needed to stem what it deems as harmful foreign actors trying to destabilize politics in the South Caucasus nation of 3.7 million people.

The opposition has denounced the bill as “the Russian law,” because Moscow uses similar legislation to crack down on independent news media, nonprofits and activists critical of the Kremlin.

European Council President Charles Michel said Tuesday at a conference in Copenhagen that if Georgians “want to join the EU, they have to respect the fundamental principles of the rule of law and the democratic principles.”

The bill is nearly identical to one that the governing Georgian Dream party was pressured to withdraw last year after street protests. Renewed demonstrations have rocked Georgia for weeks, with demonstrators scuffling with police, who used tear gas and water cannons to disperse them.

President Salome Zourabichvili, who is increasingly at odds with the governing party, has vowed to veto the bill, but Georgian Dream has a majority sufficient to override it.

As the lawmakers opened debate Tuesday, riot police were out in force in front of the parliament. Over the weekend, thousands poured into the streets of the capital of Tbilisi, and many stayed in front of the parliament until Monday morning.

Inside, the debate was interrupted by a brawl. Georgian Dream lawmaker Dimitry Samkharadze was seen charging toward Levan Khabeishvili, head of the main opposition party United National Movement, after he accused Samkharadze of organizing mobs to beat up opposition supporters.

Several protesters and opposition members have been beaten up recently in incidents that the opposition linked to the protests.

In a speech Tuesday, Georgian Dream lawmaker Archil Talakvadze accused “the radical and anti-national political opposition united by political vendetta” of using the protests for their own political purpose and “hoping for events to take a radical turn.”

“But nothing and nobody can stop the development of our country,” Talakvadze said.

Ana Tsitlidze of the United National Movement said the protests showed how unified Georgia was “in fighting for its European future,” adding that “today, saying “˜no’ to the Russian law equals saying “˜no’ to the Russian regime.”

After the law is sent to Zourabichvili, she has 14 days to either veto or approve it.

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