World

Georgia rocked by clashes over 'foreign agent' bill

May 02, 2024
Police used tear gas and water cannon and a number of people were hurt in central Tbilisi
Police used tear gas and water cannon and a number of people were hurt in central Tbilisi

TBILISI — Riot police in Georgia fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse crowds for a second night, as protests continued against a proposed law denounced by opponents as Russian-inspired.

A number of people were hurt during the protests after parliament approved the second reading of the controversial "foreign agent" bill on Wednesday.

The EU warns it could harm Tbilisi's ambitions of joining the bloc.

The European Commission head said she was watching events with great concern.

"The Georgian people want a European future for their country," Ursula von der Leyen posted on X. "Georgia is at a crossroads. It should stay the course on the road to Europe."

The governing Georgian Dream party argues the bill will "boost transparency" of foreign funding, but protesters fear it could be used to crush critical voices ahead of parliamentary elections later this year.

Opponents say the measures are inspired by authoritarian legislation that neighbouring Russia uses to crush dissent.

Russia's 2012 law has since been used to marginalize voices challenging the Kremlin — including prominent cultural figures, media organizations and civil society groups.

The billionaire founder of Georgian Dream, Bidzina Ivanishvili, claimed this week that a Western "global war" party was using the country as part of its confrontation with Russia. He said Georgia had been set against Russia in 2008, when Russian forces invaded the country, again in 2014 when Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine, and then two years ago when Russia's full-scale war in Ukraine began.

The bill cleared its second reading with a vote of 83 to 23. After a third reading it has to be signed off by President Salome Zurabishvili, who has vowed to veto the bill, although Georgian Dream has sufficient numbers in parliament to overrule her.

Georgian Dream wants the law enacted by the end of the month. Once that happens, organizations would be required to state whether they are funded from abroad.

Georgia has been rocked by weeks of protests over the issue. On Tuesday night, clashes erupted between police and protesters on Rustaveli Avenue, outside parliament.

Several people were injured, including Levan Khabeishvili, chairman of the main opposition party United National Movement (UNM). He posted a picture of his bruised face on social media and later appeared in parliament, his face heavily bandaged.

Eyewitnesses accused some police officers of physically attacking protesters and EU foreign police chief Josep Borrell said he strongly condemned violence against Georgians "who were peacefully demonstrating against the law on foreign influence".

Deputy Interior Minister Aleksandre Darakhvelidze said six officers were hurt and 63 people arrested and he complained that "the rally turned completely violent". He said Khabeishvili had been hurt while trying to break through a police cordon, although his party said he had been beaten by police.

Georgia was granted EU candidate status last December and polls suggest about 80% of the population is in favour of joining.

Protests against the bill began in mid-April, with many Georgians fearing the government's measures would derail Georgia from its path towards membership, says the BBC's South Caucasus correspondent, Rayhan Demytrie.

Under the proposals, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and independent media would be required to register as organizations "bearing the interests of a foreign power", if they receive more than 20% of their funding from foreign donors.

They would also be monitored by Georgia's justice ministry and could be forced to share sensitive information — or face hefty fines of up to 25,000 Georgian lari ($9,400; £7,500).

A number of European leaders have warned the proposed bill is "incompatible" with European norms and values.

But the government of Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze is standing firm.

Kobakhidze has accused NGOs of attempting to stage revolutions in Georgia twice, of promoting "gay propaganda" and of attacking the Georgian Orthodox Church.

The government insists the bill is about ensuring transparency and rejects the notion that it is against European values — or that Russia is behind the legislation.

On Monday, Bidzina Ivanishvili told a rally of Georgian Dream supporters that foreign-funded NGOs threatened Georgian sovereignty and that the opposition UNM would be punished for crimes against the state after this year's elections.

President Zourabichvili, whose role is largely ceremonial, described the pro-government rally as a "Putin-type" event.

Ms Zourabichvili, who is strongly opposed to the foreign influence bill, has appealed to the interior ministry to stop using "disproportionate force" against protesters. — BBC


May 02, 2024
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