Georgia's Ivanishvili lashes out at West amid 'foreign agent' bill crisis

By Felix Light

TBILISI (Reuters) -Bidzina Ivanishvili, the influential billionaire founder of Georgia's ruling party, accused a Western "global party of war" of meddling in Georgia in a rare speech at a rally backing a bill on foreign agents that has sparked a political crisis in the South Caucasus country.

Ivanishvili, who served as Georgia's prime minister from 2012-2013 and remains influential within the ruling Georgian Dream party, said that Georgia and Ukraine had been treated as "cannon fodder" by Western countries, whose intelligence agencies he accused of political interference in the country.

"The financing of NGOs, which presents itself as help for us, is in reality for strengthening (foreign) intelligence agencies, and for bringing them to power," he said.

The bill on foreign agents, which Georgian Dream introduced to parliament earlier this month, has touched off a political crisis in the deeply polarised country, with thousands of anti-bill protesters demonstrating nightly in Tbilisi.

The draft law would require organisations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as "foreign agents".

A parliamentary committee approved the bill's second reading on Monday in a tense hearing, from which all opposition members were expelled. Parliament is expected to approve the second of three readings on Tuesday, amid opposition protests.

The EU, which gave Georgia candidate status in December, has said that the draft law is "incompatible" with EU values. Britain, the U.S. and Germany have all criticised the decision to reintroduce the law, which was initially shelved last year after protests.

Georgia's opposition has dubbed it "the Russian law", comparing it to Russia's law on foreign agents, which the Kremlin has used to crack down on dissent.

Russia is unpopular among many Georgians for its support of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia lost a brief war against Russia in 2008.

Tbilisi's central streets were choked on Monday with tens of thousands attending the pro-government demonstration, with hundreds of buses ferrying rallygoers to Tbilisi from Georgia's outlying regions.

Georgia's opposition parties accused the government of forcing civil servants to attend the rally. President Salome Zourabichvili, who opposes the law but whose post is mostly ceremonial, described the pro-government rally on social media site X as "a 'Putintype' action: civil servants 'bused' to Tbilisi to applaud (the)ruling party’s decisions".

A senior ruling party official cited by local media said the party was helping its supporters with travel costs and transport to attend its demonstration, while insisting that they would only be there of their own volition.

Mzia, a woman who had been bussed to the rally from the western Georgian town of Zestafoni, 188km (117 miles) from Tbilisi, said: "I'm genuinely interested in what these NGOs get money for. Who finances them and why?"

Several hundred people attended a smaller march against the bill in a city park some three miles (5km) from the parliament building.

Protester Dachi Danelishvili, 31, said the government was using "old Soviet techniques" by bussing in its supporters, and that the show of force would not stop the bill's opponents from protesting its passage.

"Honestly, I feel sorry for them because they are really forced," he said, referring to pro-government rallygoers.

"Bringing those people today, they are basically using our own money against us," he added.

(Reporting by Felix Light in Tbilisi; additional reporting by Gleb Stolyarov; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Alistair Bell)