‘No to the Russian law’: Georgians protest ‘foreign agents’ bill | News

‘No to the Russian law’: Georgians protest ‘foreign agents’ bill | News

Police use water cannons and tear gas as thousands of people gather in Tbilisi to protest against the proposed law on foreign agents.

Police in the Georgian capital Tbilisi have fired water cannons and tear gas to disperse crowds protesting a proposed “foreign agents” law reminiscent of a Russian measure used to silence critics.

Hundreds of police gathered in the streets around Georgia’s parliament building late Wednesday night in an attempt to break up the protests. Thousands gathered there for a second day, carrying Georgian and European Union flags and chanting “no to Russian law”.

Tear gas was fired on Rustaveli Avenue in central Tbilisi, where the parliament is located, forcing at least some of the demonstrators to leave.

Protesters are demanding authorities scrap the “foreign funding transparency” law, which requires any organization that receives more than 20 percent of its funding from abroad to register as a “foreign agent” or face fines considerably.

The ruling Georgian Dream party says it is modeled after legislation in the United States dating back to the 1930s. Critics, including President Salome Zourabichvili, say it is similar to a law passed by Russia in 2012 that has been used to shut down or discredit organizations critical of the government and could harm Georgia’s chances of EU membership.

Protesters wave placards and an EU flag as they demonstrate outside the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi on March 7, 2023 [Stringer/ AFP]Georgia applied for EU membership along with Ukraine and Moldova days after Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year.

In June, EU leaders granted official candidate status to Kyiv and Chisinau, but told Tbilisi it needed to implement some reforms before it could be considered.

Thousands of people have gathered for days in Tbilisi to protest the law, and clashes broke out on Tuesday after lawmakers approved the measure on its first reading. Police used tear gas and water cannons against the demonstrators and said more than 70 people had been arrested. About 50 police officers were also injured, they said.

Protests resumed on Wednesday afternoon with a march to Rustaveli Street to mark International Women’s Day, which is a public holiday.

“We cannot allow our country to become pro-Russian or a Russian state, or undemocratic,” said Vakhtang Berikashvili, a 33-year-old software engineer.

Another protester, Elene Ksovreli, 16, said the Georgian people “will not let them make Russia determine our future”.

“We, the youth, are here to defend everything,” she told the AFP news agency.

Aza Akhvlediani, 72, called the Georgian government “stupid”.

“I know what is happening in Moscow. They stop every passerby and do whatever they want. I think the Georgian government wants the same thing,” she said.

Even politicians in the EU have expressed concern.

The bill “goes directly against the stated ambition of the Georgian authorities to obtain EU candidate status,” said a statement by EU parliamentarians Maria Kaljurand and Sven Mikser. “The purpose of the new law, under the guise of promoting transparency, is to stigmatize the work of civil society organizations and the media,” the statement added.

Riot police block a road to stop protesters outside the Georgian parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia, early Thursday, March 9, 2023 [Zurab Tsertsvadze/ AP]In response to the situation, the US asked the Georgian government to show “restraint” and allow peaceful protests, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for “democratic success” in “friendly Georgia”.

The bill has deepened a rift between Georgian Dream, which has a parliamentary majority, and Zourabichvili, the pro-European president who has defected from the party since being elected with its support in 2018.

She has vowed to veto the bill if it reaches her desk, although parliament could override it.

Zourabichvili, speaking to CNN, urged authorities to refrain from using force and portrayed Georgia as a victim of aggression by Russia, which it 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.

Georgia and Ukraine were once part of the former Russian-dominated Soviet Union.

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.

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