TBILISI (Reuters) -Georgian police used tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters on Tuesday in central Tbilisi after parliament gave its initial backing to a draft law on “foreign agents” which critics say represents an authoritarian shift imperilling the South Caucasus country’s hopes of European Union membership. The law, backed by the ruling Georgian Dream […]
Georgian police use tear gas on protests against ‘foreign agents’ law
TBILISI (Reuters) -Georgian police used tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters on Tuesday in central Tbilisi after parliament gave its initial backing to a draft law on “foreign agents” which critics say represents an authoritarian shift imperilling the South Caucasus country’s hopes of European Union membership.
The law, backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party, would require any organisations receiving more than 20% of their funding from overseas to register as “foreign agents”, or face substantial fines.
Critics have said it is reminiscent of a 2012 law in Russia that has since been used to crack down on dissent.
Reuters journalists in Tbilisi saw protesters angrily remonstrating with police armed with riot shields who then used tear gas and watercannon to disperse them. Protesters suffering from the effects of tear gas were being treated on the steps outside the parliament building.
“I came here because I know that my country belongs to Europe, but my government doesn’t understand it”, said 30 year old protestor Demetre Shanshiashvili.
“We are here to protect our country because we don’t want to part of Russia again”, he added, referring to the almost two centuries Georgia spent as part of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union.
Some demonstrators threw plastic bottles and fireworks at police, a Reuters witness said.
Earlier, the law had comfortably passed its first parliamentary reading, Georgian media outlets reported.
Some of the protesters gathered outside the parliament building carried Georgian, European Union and U.S. flags, and shouted: “No to the Russian law”, and “You are Russian” at politicians inside the legislature.
Russia is viewed as an enemy by many Georgians, after Moscow backed separatists in the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the 1990s. Hundreds of thousands of Georgians remain internally displaced within the country after several bouts of bloody ethnic conflict.
Speaking in Berlin earlier on Tuesday, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Garibashvili reaffirmed his support for the law, saying the proposed provisions on foreign agents met “European and global standards”.
“The future of our country doesn’t belong to, and will not belong to, foreign agents and servants of foreign countries,” he said.
Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili said after the protests that she was cancelling meetings during her visit to the United States and preparing an address to Georgians, according to a statement by her office.
The United States was closely following developments in Georgia, State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters.
Zourabichvili, who was elected as a Georgian Dream candidate, has said she will veto the foreign agents law, which she says endangers Georgia’s hopes of joining the EU. Parliament can override her veto.
The ruling party, which says it wants Georgia to join the European Union, has accused critics of the bill of opposing the Georgian Orthodox Church, one of the country’s most respected and influential institutions.
On Monday, a committee hearing on the law ended in a physical brawl in parliament, as the chairman of the legislature’s legal affairs committee appeared to physically strike the leader of the opposition United National Movement, which opposes the bill.
More than 60 civil society organisations and media outlets have said they will not comply with the bill if it is signed into law.
Georgia’s government has in recent years faced criticism from observers, who say the country is drifting towards authoritarianism. In June, the EU declined to grant Georgia candidate status alongside Moldova and Ukraine, citing stalled political and judicial reforms.
(Reporting by Felix Light, David Chkhikvishvili and Ben Tavener in Tbilisi and Vladimir Soldatkin in MoscowEditing by Andrew Osborn, Gareth Jones and Grant McCool)
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