Georgia’s parliament presses forward with ‘foreign agent’ bill despite protests

By Thomson Reuters Apr 16, 2024 | 3:09 AM

By Felix Light

TBILISI (Reuters) – The speaker of Georgia’s parliament said that lawmakers would debate the first reading of a bill on “foreign agents” on Tuesday as opponents called for a second day of protests against a measure they see as Russian-inspired.

More than 5,000 people demonstrated on Monday outside parliament, facing off against riot police and water cannon to oppose a bill that Georgian and Western critics have warned would jeopardise Georgia’s hopes of moving towards membership of the European Union.

The bill would require organisations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as being agents of foreign influence.

Georgian critics have compared it to Russian legislation used by the Kremlin to crack down on dissent – a potent charge in the South Caucasus country, where Russia is unpopular for its support of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia defeated Georgia in a short war in 2008.

Western countries including the United States, Britain and Germany have urged Georgia not to pass the bill. The EU, which gave Georgia candidate status in December, has said the draft law is “incompatible” with the bloc’s values.

Georgia’s government, which has faced accusations of authoritarianism and pro-Russian leanings, says the law is needed to promote transparency and combat “pseudo-liberal values” imposed by foreigners. The ruling Georgian Dream party said this month it would reintroduce the bill, 13 months after it was shelved due to protests.

Outside parliament on Monday, protesters chanted slogans against what they called “the Russian law”, and shouted “Russians! Russians!” at police and ruling party MPs.

Inside the chamber, opposition MP Aleko Elisashvili was shown on television punching Mamuka Mdinaradze, faction leader of Georgian Dream, as he spoke from the despatch box.

Protesters against the bill told Reuters that they saw Georgia’s future membership of the EU, which is overwhelmingly popular in the country of 3.7 million, as being on the line.

“I don’t like that the government is trying to suppress NGOs and put some labels on them as if they are foreign agents,” said Luka Tsulaia, a 32-year-old computer programmer.

“It’s about maintaining independence and also maintaining the laws so that we can integrate with the European Union better.”

(Reporting by Felix Light; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)