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Georgian police clear protesters against foreign agent bill

Published 16/04/2024, 09:09
© Reuters. People take part in a protest against a draft bill on "foreign agents" in Tbilisi, Georgia April 15, 2024. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

By Felix Light

TBILISI (Reuters) -Riot police in Georgia waded into demonstrators and cleared them from around part of the ex-Soviet state's parliament on Tuesday as lawmakers debated a bill on "foreign agents" that the opposition denounces as authoritarian.

The bill would require organisations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as being agents of foreign influence. It is likely to pass in a parliament controlled by the ruling Georgian Dream party and its allies.

Opponents say the legislation will damage Georgia's bid to join the European Union.

As many as 10,000 protesters massed outside parliament, a larger gathering than the previous day, to denounce the bill, approved by a parliamentary committee on Monday.

Officers, some carrying shotguns, ordered protesters to disperse and deployed what appeared to be a crowd-control substance like pepper spray while clashing with demonstrators.

Protesters fled the area and within minutes the rear of the building was cleared of demonstrators, though many remained through the evening on other approaches to the parliament.

Those forced out by police regrouped with other protesters massed on Rustaveli Avenue, a city artery.

Georgia's Interior Ministry said one police officer was injured in the fracas. Eleven protesters were detained.

Critics have compared the bill 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.

Nika Melia, a prominent opposition politician, said the government was "in cahoots" with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the issue was about Georgia's very independence.

"What I can say definitely is that Georgians and the Georgian will cannot be defeated," he told Reuters. "No chance. Georgians will prevail over the Russian interest."

WESTERN CRITICISM

Western countries say the bill is unhelpful in Georgia's EU membership bid.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said that although it had not yet been approved, Washington was "deeply concerned about that law" and "supports everyone's right ... to freedom of expression and freedom of speech."

Charles Michel, head of the EU's European Council, said it "will bring Georgia further away from the EU and not closer".

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, a frequent critic of Georgian Dream, wrote on X that drive to pass the bill was a provocation and a Russian strategy of destabilisation.

Protesters shouted slogans against the "Russian law" on Tuesday afternoon as police sealed entrances to the Soviet-built complex.

During the debate on the bill, Archil Talakvadze, a senior MP representing Georgian Dream, said: "This law defends democracy in our country from any foreign interference."

In response, Tina Bokuchava, parliamentary leader of the United National Movement opposition party said: "Recall this law, once and for all! There is no place in Georgia for a Russian law. Europe is the choice of the Georgian people."

The bill must pass three readings in parliament, and will then likely face a fourth vote to override a presidential veto.

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.

Georgian Dream unexpectedly reintroduced the bill this month, more than a year after abandoning an earlier attempt to pass the law amid protests.

© Reuters. Georgian law enforcement officers stand guard during a protest against a draft bill on

Protesters 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 hope that we will show the power of free people," said Giorgi Bekurashvili, 26. "That we will not give up, and that it will make them decide to take back this unacceptable legislation."

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