Georgia marks three weeks of protests against controversial bill

Demonstrators have rallied against the bill for weeks (Giorgi ARJEVANIDZE)
Demonstrators have rallied against the bill for weeks (Giorgi ARJEVANIDZE)

Thousands of Georgians held pro-European Union rallies on Tuesday, as parliament held hearings on a controversial "foreign influence" bill, which Brussels has denounced as undermining Tbilisi's long-standing European aspirations.

The Black Sea Caucasus nation has been gripped by mass anti-government protests since April 9, after the ruling Georgian Dream party reintroduced plans to pass a law that critics say resembles Russian legislation used to silence dissent.

MPs were debating the draft law's second reading on Tuesday, with the ruling party aiming to adopt it in mid-May.

The bill needs to pass three readings in parliament and a presidential signature to become law. Georgia's president is widely expected to veto the measure, but the ruling party has enough seats to override the veto in parliament.

Blocking traffic on Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi's main thoroughfare, several thousand protesters gathered outside parliament in the evening, the third week of youth-dominated daily rallies against the measure.

- 'Russian law' -

Masked riot police, some deploying pepper spray, intervened to disperse hundreds of demonstrators who attempted to block entrances of the building, an AFP reporter saw.

"They are scared because they see our resolve," one of the protesters, 21-year-old Natia Gabisonia, told AFP. "We will not let them pass this Russian law and to bury our European future."

EU chief Charles Michel has said the bill "is not consistent with Georgia's bid for EU membership" and that it "will bring Georgia further away from the EU and not closer."

Similar rallies were held across the country, including in Georgia's second-largest city of Batumi and the main city of the western Imereti region, Kutaisi, independent TV station, Formula, reported.

Last year, Georgian Dream was forced to drop the measure following mass street protests that saw police use tear gas and water cannon against demonstrators.

Georgia has sought for years to deepen relations with the West, but the current ruling party has been accused of attempting to steer the former Soviet republic closer to Russia.

In December, the EU granted Georgia official candidate status but said Tbilisi would have to reform its judicial and electoral systems, reduce political polarisation, improve press freedom and curtail the power of oligarchs before membership talks are formally launched.

Georgia's bid for membership of the EU and NATO is enshrined in its constitution and -- according to opinion polls -- supported by more than 80 percent of the population.