Georgian police use water, tear gas in move to break up second day of protests
Georgians demonstrate against new law on ‘foreign agents’ Critics fear law could be used to stifle dissent Law modeled after Russian legislation, opponents say Ruling party says it protects national interests
TBILISI, March 8 (Reuters) – Police in the Georgian capital Tbilisi used tear gas, water cannons and stun grenades late on Wednesday as they moved to break up a second straight day of protests against the “foreign agents” law, which critics say it signals an authoritarian shift.
Hundreds of police gathered in the streets around the parliament building in an attempt to disperse the protesters. Unlike Tuesday night’s clashes, there were no signs of demonstrators throwing petrol bombs or rocks, although at least one police car was overturned.
Tear gas was fired on central Tbilisi’s Rustaveli Avenue, where the parliament is located, forcing at least some of the thousands of demonstrators to leave.
The Interior Ministry said 77 people had been arrested following Tuesday’s protests that began when lawmakers approved a first reading of the law, which would require any organization that receives more than 20% of its funding from abroad to register as “agents foreigners” or face significant fines. .
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The ruling Georgian Dream party says it is modeled after US legislation dating from the 1930s. Critics, including President Salome Zourabichvili, say it is reminiscent of a law Russia has used to crack down on dissent and could hurt Georgia’s chances of membership in the European Union.
Zourabichvili, speaking to CNN, urged authorities to refrain from using force and portrayed Georgia as the victim of aggression by a Russia she said was determined to maintain influence in the Caucasus region.
“It is clear that Russia will not give up very easily, but Russia is losing its war in Ukraine,” she said. Both Georgia and Ukraine were once part of the former Russian-dominated Soviet Union.
The EU last year rejected Tbilisi’s bid to become a candidate for membership, saying it needed to speed up changes in areas such as the rule of law.
THE SPLIT IN THE STANDARD PARTY
Protests resumed on Wednesday afternoon with a march to Rustaveli Street to mark International Women’s Day, which is a public holiday.
“It’s very clear that more and more people understand that this is scary and they have to fight for their future,” said journalist Mikheil Gvadzabia, 24.
Thousands of people gathered in front of parliament as the evening began, holding Georgian and European Union flags, as well as the Ukrainian flag, and chanting “No to Russian law” and blocking traffic.
“We cannot allow our country to become pro-Russian or a Russian state, or undemocratic,” said software engineer Vakhtang Berikashvili, 33.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy thanked Georgians for flying his country’s flag, saying it shows respect.
“We want to be in the European Union and we will be. We want Georgia to be in the European Union and I’m sure it will be,” he said in a video speech.
Footage of smaller protests in the Black Sea resort city of Batumi, Georgia’s second largest, was also shared online.
The bill has deepened a rift between Georgian Dream, which has a parliamentary majority, and Zourabichvili, a pro-European who has left the party since being elected with its support in 2018.
She vows to veto the bill if it reaches her desk, although parliament could override it.
Critics say the Georgian Dream is too close to Russia and has taken the country in a more repressive direction. Georgian society is strongly anti-Moscow after years of conflict over the status of the two Russian-backed separatist regions, which went to war in 2008.
Georgian Dream chairman Irakli Kobakhidze said on Wednesday that the law will help root out those who work against the interests of the country and the powerful Georgian Orthodox Church. He criticized Georgia’s “radical opposition” for inciting the protesters.
Additional reporting by David Chkhikvishvili and Ben Tavener in Tbilisi; writing by Jake Cordell and David Ljunggren; editing by Mark Trevelyan, Gareth Jones and Grant McCool
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