By Jake Cordell TBILISI (Reuters) – Thousands of people staged a second straight day of large-scale protests in Tbilisi on Wednesday, rallying against a “foreign agents” law which critics say signals an authoritarian shift that harms Georgia’s chances of closer ties with Europe. Georgia’s parliament on Tuesday passed a first reading of the legislation, which […]
Georgian protesters rally in Tbilisi after violent clashes with police
By Jake Cordell
TBILISI (Reuters) – Thousands of people staged a second straight day of large-scale protests in Tbilisi on Wednesday, rallying against a “foreign agents” law which critics say signals an authoritarian shift that harms Georgia’s chances of closer ties with Europe.
Georgia’s parliament on Tuesday passed a first reading of the legislation, which requires any organisations receiving more than 20% of their funding from overseas to register as “foreign agents” or face substantial fines.
The ruling Georgian Dream party say it is modelled on U.S. legislation dating from the 1930s. Critics, including Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, say it is reminiscent of a Russian law that the Kremlin has used to crack down on dissent.
In violent clashes on Tuesday evening, protesters threw petrol bombs and stones at police, who used tear gas and water cannon to dispel the crowds. The interior ministry said 66 people had been detained.
Protests kicked off again on Wednesday afternoon with a march to mark International Women’s Day, which is a public holiday in Georgia.
Protesters carried Georgian and EU flags down the central Rustaveli Avenue towards parliament, shouting “No to the Russian law”.
Opposition parties called for a second night of mass protests outside parliament.
The issue has deepened a rift between Georgian Dream, which leads the government and has a majority in parliament, and President Zourabichvili, a pro-European who has moved away from the party since being elected with its support in 2018.
She has backed the protesters, saying on Tuesday that lawmakers who voted for the draft law had violated the constitution. She also pledged to veto the bill if it reached her desk, though parliament can override a presidential veto to force laws through.
Critics say Georgian Dream is too close to Russia and has taken the country in a more repressive direction in recent years. Georgian society is strongly anti-Moscow following years of conflict with Russia over the status of the Moscow-backed breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Georgian Dream Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze defended the bill again on Wednesday, saying it would help root out those working against the interests of the country and the powerful Georgian Orthodox Church. He criticsed Georgia’s “radical opposition” for stirring up protesters to commit “unprecedented violence” during Tuesday’s rallies, according to Georgian news agencies.
Several EU officials have expressed concerns over the law.
“Adoption of this ‘foreign influence’ law is not compatible with the EU path, which majority in Georgia wants,” European Council President Charles Michel said in a tweet on Wednesday.
Last year Brussels rebuffed Tbilisi’s attempts to become a candidate country for EU membership, saying it needed to speed up reforms in areas such as the rule of law, media freedom and the independence of the judiciary.
(Additional reporting by David Chkhikvishvili and Ben Tavener in Tbilisi; writing by Jake Cordell; editing by Mark Trevelyan and Gareth Jones)
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