Georgian parliament overrides veto by president on ‘foreign influence’ law

<span>Protesters demonstrate outside Georgia’s parliament as it votes to overrule President Salome Zourabichvili’s veto.</span><span>Photograph: Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Protesters demonstrate outside Georgia’s parliament as it votes to overrule President Salome Zourabichvili’s veto.Photograph: Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images

Georgia’s parliament has voted to override a presidential veto on the controversial “foreign influence” law, a move that is poised to derail the EU aspirations of many Georgians in favour of closer ties with Moscow.

The divisive bill, which requires civil society organisations and media that receive more than 20% of their revenues from abroad to register as “organisations serving the interests of a foreign power”, was approved by the parliament earlier this month.

Related: Why has Georgia’s ‘foreign agents’ bill caused so much protest and anger?

The president, Salome Zourabichvili, later vetoed the law, which she and other critics argue is modelled on a 2012 Russian bill used to suppress pro-western groups.

But on Tuesday the Georgian parliament, controlled by the ruling Georgian Dream party, voted to overrule her veto, setting the stage for the speaker to sign the bill into law in the coming days.

Thousands of opponents of the bill rallied outside the parliament building on Tuesday evening, waving Georgian and EU flags.

Zourabichvili addressed the crowd by video link, asking: “Do we want a European future or Russian slavery?”

She called on the protesters to mobilise in the run-up to elections in October, saying: “You are angry today, aren’t you? Get angry, but let’s get to work. The work is that we have to prepare, first of all, for a true referendum.”

The EU has said that the law will be an obstacle to the country’s accession to the bloc, a goal supported by up to 80% of the electorate. In a statement on Tuesday evening the EU said it “deeply regrets” the vote to override the veto and was considering all its options.

“The EU has stressed repeatedly that the law adopted by the Georgian parliament goes against EU core principles and values,” it said.

The EU offered Georgia candidate status last December, while noting that Tbilisi needed to implement key policy recommendations for its membership submission to progress.

In response to the vote on Tuesday, Gabrielius Landsbergis, the Lithuanian foreign minister, said: “A very sad day for Georgia and the rest of Europe. The passing of this law effectively puts Georgia’s accession to the EU on hold, with no benefit for anybody. Almost anybody.”

The legislation has brought hundreds of thousands of people out on to the streets of the capital, Tbilisi, in recent months. They accuse the ruling Georgian Dream party of trying to smear dissenting voices as traitors and block the country’s EU membership aspirations.

Critics of the law also worry it will be used by the government to restrict debate in the run-up to parliamentary elections scheduled for October.

On Tuesday one protester, Giorgi Amzashvili, told Reuters that the lawmakers who had voted to override the president’s veto were “the most treacherous people in our history”. “A disastrous day in our lives, in Georgian history. I struggle to remember anything like this,” he said.

The EU foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, had earlier on Tuesday repeated warnings that the foreign agent law would hinder the country’s future EU accession. “If the law is enacted, it will impact Georgia’s EU path,” he said.

The US has also has warned that the legislation and the government’s anti-western rhetoric is turning Georgia into an “adversary” and that Washington could pull billions in economic and military aid.

Last week, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, announced that travel sanctions would be imposed on Georgian officials “who are responsible for or complicit in undermining democracy in Georgia”.

Members of the Georgian Dream party have defended the law, saying it is needed to stem what it deems to be harmful foreign actors trying to destabilise the South Caucasus nation of 3.7 million people.

“What continues frustrating us is the stigmatisation of this law by internal and external actors as well as their tendency for jumping to quick conclusions,” Shalva Papuashvili, the speaker of the Georgian parliament from the ruling Georgian Dream party, wrote in a letter to his European counterparts last week.

The debate over the newly enacted law is seen as a litmus test of whether Georgia, once one of the most pro-western former Soviet states, will now drift towards Russia.

Kornely Kakachia, the head of the Tbilisi-based thinktank the Georgian Institute of Politics, said the law highlighted the “growing authoritarianism and shrinking space for debate” under the Georgian Dream party.

Russia is unpopular among ordinary Georgians, having supported armed separatists in the Moscow-backed breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the 1990s and again in 2008.

Opposition parties have long accused the ruling Georgian Dream party, and its founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s, of loyalties to Moscow.

Many Georgians have also rallied to support Ukraine after Russia’s invasion of the country and criticised their government for generally avoiding direct condemnation of Moscow and refusing to impose sanctions on Russia.