Tens of thousands rally in Georgia against 'foreign influence' bill

Georgia has been gripped by mass anti-government protests since April (Giorgi ARJEVANIDZE)
Georgia has been gripped by mass anti-government protests since April (Giorgi ARJEVANIDZE)

Tens of thousands of people rallied Wednesday in Georgia against a controversial "foreign influence" bill, after parliament advanced the measure that Brussels has warned would harm 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, which critics say resembles repressive Russian legislation used to silence dissent.

The bill cleared its second reading in parliament on Wednesday with a vote of 83 to 23, a day after police violently broke up a demonstration against it, firing tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets, and beating and arresting scores of people.

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen condemned the violence and urged Georgia to stay on the path to Europe.

"I am following the situation in Georgia with great concern and condemn the violence on the streets of Tbilisi," von der Leyen wrote on social media platform X.

"The Georgian people want a European future for their country. Georgia is at a crossroads. It should stay the course on the road to Europe".

Waving Georgian and European Union flags, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered on Wednesday evening outside parliament, according to an AFP reporter on the scene. Georgia's national anthem and the EU's "Ode to Joy" were performed at the rally.

- 'Popular anger growing' -

Later in the evening, police used pepper spray, tear gas, and water cannon from inside the courtyard of the parliament building against hundreds of demonstrators who attempted to block the legislature's side entrance.

Parliament said in a statement that it had "activated the red level of security due to the attack on the parliament building, which poses a threat to the lives and health" of those inside.

"Their senseless violence is futile -- the protest will only grow as popular anger is growing against our government," protester Tato Gachechiladze, 20, told AFP.

"Georgia belongs to Europe and we will not tolerate Russian laws and a pro-Russian government," he added.

An AFP reporter at the scene said there were no attempts to attack the building, except when a group of youths shook its massive gate.

The interior ministry said police had used "special means provided by the law -- pepper spray and water cannons -- in order to restore law and order".

Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze criticised Western politicians and diplomats for "slandering" the bill, which will only "boost transparency of NGO's foreign funding in accordance with European values."

He accused Georgian civil groups of trying to stage revolutions "at least twice in the last three years" with Western funding.

- Coveted EU candidacy -

A mass anti-government rally was also held in Georgia's second-largest city of Batumi, independent TV station Formula reported.

The turmoil comes ahead of parliamentary elections in October, seen as a key test of democracy in the EU-aspiring former Soviet republic.

The ruling Georgian Dream party has defended the bill, saying it aims to sign the measure into law by mid-May.

The bill must pass a third reading and be signed by the president to become law.

President Salome Zurabishvili -- who is at loggerheads with the ruling party -- is expected to veto the measure, but the party has enough votes for an override.

If adopted, the law would require that any independent NGO and media organisation receiving more than 20 percent of its funding from abroad register as an "organisation pursuing the interests of a foreign power."

The United States said the legislation would put Georgia on a "precarious trajectory".

"The statements and actions of the Georgian government are incompatible with the democratic values that underpin membership in the EU and NATO and thus jeopardize Georgia's path to Euro-Atlantic integration," US State Department Spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement.

Last year, mass street protests forced Georgian Dream to drop plans for similar measures.

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

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."

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.

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