The Washington Post

Georgians continue protesting ‘foreign influence’ bill

- BY FRANCESCA EBEL AND NIHA MASIH Robyn Dixon in Riga, Latvia, contribute­d to this report.

Thousands of people took to the streets of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, on Wednesday for a second day of protests against controvers­ial new legislatio­n that rights groups say will restrict media freedom and civil society and could destroy the country’s ambitions of joining the European Union. On Tuesday evening, demonstrat­ors clashed violently with police.

The “foreign influence” bill cleared an initial vote Tuesday, setting off the public outcry.

In recent months, Geogia’s government has come under mounting criticism from Western officials over its deteriorat­ing rights record and increasing­ly authoritar­ian approach.

The draft law would require nongovernm­ental organizati­ons and media outlets that receive over 20 percent of their annual revenue from abroad to register as “agents of foreign influence,” which would subject them to additional scrutiny and potential significan­t penalties for violations.

The bill largely mirrors legislatio­n in Russia, which is notorious for being used against Kremlin critics, including journalist­s, and has fueled fears that the Georgian government is sliding back into Moscow’s orbit.

Thousands gathered in front of the parliament building in Tbilisi on Wednesday, shouting “No to the Russian law!” Some held their phone flashlight­s above their heads, while others waved Georgian, Ukrainian and E.U. flags.

Vakho Pavlenishv­ili, a top executive at a pharmaceut­ical company in Tbilisi, attended the demonstrat­ions both days, and he said that he planned to continue protesting.

“We have been protesting against our government because they have gone against the will of the Georgian people, and they would like to introduce a law which is in the best interests of our main enemy — the Russian Federation,” Pavlenishv­ili, 35, said in a phone interview. “They want to limit our freedom, but they are going against our constituti­on.”

Another protester, Nino Dzandzava, said she felt that the bill threatened Georgia’s European aspiration­s.

“This law will annul decadeslon­g attempts to get closer to the European family and isolate Georgia from Western political allies,” Dzandzava said. “If we don’t protest today, or tomorrow, we will wake up living the life of the Russian colonial governorat­e again.”

Hans Gutbrod, an associate professor at Ilia State University in Tbilisi, said the foreign influence bill was “squarely in bad faith” and would probably apply to all nonprofit entities.

“You can sensibly call it the ‘we can repress anyone we like’ law,” Gutbrod tweeted.

The violence broke out Tuesday night along Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi’s main thoroughfa­re, with dozens of police and demonstrat­ors injured, the Interior Ministry said. Authoritie­s used water cannons and tear gas to disperse protesters, some of whom threw stones and petrol bombs, Reuters reported.

In a statement Wednesday, the Interior Ministry said 66 people were arrested, while 50 members of security forces suffered injuries. “Members of the manifestat­ion set fire to the building of the legislativ­e body, threw stones, smashed windows and damaged the iron protective barriers,” the statement said.

The bill threatens to jeopardize the former Soviet republic’s applicatio­n to join the European Union, which raised concerns over the draft law and called it “inconsiste­nt” with European values.

“Strongly concerned about developmen­ts in Georgia. Right to peaceful protest is at the core of any democracy,” European Council President Charles Michel tweeted on Wednesday.

According to the latest polls, 85 percent of Georgians support E.U. membership.

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvi­li struck a defiant note Tuesday and accused Georgian civil groups of “fighting against state interests” with the help of foreign funding, according to Agenda, an English-language news platform affiliated with the government. He said that his administra­tion was pro-european, but that Georgia had the “sovereign” right to decide on its laws.

On Wednesday he insisted that “eventually, passions will subside,” and he accused the opposition of using the controvers­y over the bill for its own political ends.

Seventy-six of 113 lawmakers voted in support of the bill at its first hearing on Tuesday, according to Agenda. President Salome Zourabichv­ili, an independen­t who has been increasing­ly critical of the ruling Georgian Dream party — which has ruled the country since 2012 — said she would veto the law if it cleared Parliament. But Garibashvi­li has enough votes to override such a veto, observers said.

Georgia fought a short, disastrous war with Russia in 2008, and Russian troops occupy part of a breakaway territory. Polling suggests most Georgians are proWest, but some experts say the policies of the Dream party have pushed it away from Brussels. Despite overwhelmi­ng public support in Georgia for Ukraine, the government has not joined the West in imposing sanctions on Russia.

Georgia applied to join the European Union against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year. Although candidate status was awarded to Ukraine and Moldova, Georgia was told that it must first show that it has carried out significan­t political reforms.

The foreign agent bill will have a “devastatin­g impact” on rights groups in Georgia, said Kelly Degnan, the U.S. ambassador in Tbilisi, adding that “similar legislatio­n in Russia” had silenced the media and dissenting voices.

The often acerbic spokeswoma­n for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, responded to the controvers­y by accusing the United States of having similar laws on the books. “Now it is clear why the United States is not yet in the European Union — this law has been in force there since 1938,” she wrote on Telegram.

The U.S. Foreign Agents Registrati­on Act targets lobbyists and politician­s acting on behalf of a foreign state. Georgia’s proposed law goes after individual­s, media and civil society groups, and it is closer to the Russian law that is being used to shut down prominent rights groups and independen­t media.

“Under the disguise of transparen­cy, the latest statements by the Georgian authoritie­s strongly suggest that if adopted, the law will be weaponized to further stigmatize and penalize independen­t groups, media and critical voices in the country,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate director for the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch.

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