Police in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi fired water cannons and tear gas to disperse crowds protesting a proposed “foreign agent” law reminiscent of a Russian measure used to silence critics.
Hundreds of police converged on the streets around the Georgian parliament building late Wednesday night in a bid to disperse the protests. Thousands of people gathered there for a second day, waving Georgian and European flags and chanting “no to Russian law”.
Tear gas sprayed down Tbilisi’s central Rustaveli Avenue, where the parliament is located, forcing at least some of the protesters to walk away.
Protesters demand authorities drop the ‘foreign funding transparency’ bill, which requires any organization receiving more than 20% of its funding from abroad to register as a ‘foreign agent’ under substantial fines.
The ruling Georgian Dream party says it is modeled on US legislation that dates back to the 1930s. Critics including President Salome Zurabishvili say it is similar to a law enacted by Russia in 2012 that was used to shut down or discredit organizations critical of the government and could harm Georgia’s chances of EU membership.
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 several reforms before it could be considered.
Thousands of people gathered for days in Tbilisi to protest the law and clashes erupted on Tuesday after lawmakers approved the measure at first reading. Police used tear gas and water cannons against protesters 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 on Rustaveli Avenue to mark International Women’s Day, which is a public holiday.
“We cannot let our country 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 allow them to make Russia define our future”.
“We young people are here to protect everything,” she told AFP news agency.
Aza Akhvlediani, 72, called the Georgian government “stupid”.
“I know what is happening in Moscow. They stop every passerby and do what they want. I think the Georgian government wants the same,” she said.
EU politicians have also expressed concern.
The bill “goes directly against the declared ambition of the Georgian authorities to obtain candidate status for EU membership”, according to a statement by EU members 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.
In response to the situation, the United States urged the Georgian government to show “restraint” and allow peaceful protests, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for “democratic success” in “friendly Georgia”. .
The bill has driven a wedge between Georgian Dream, who has a parliamentary majority, and Zurabishvili, the pro-European president who has walked away from the party since being elected with its support in 2018.
She has pledged to veto the bill if it reaches her desk, although parliament could overrule it.
Zurabishvili, speaking to CNN, urged authorities to refrain from using force and portrayed Georgia as a victim of aggression from Russia, which she said was determined to maintain its influence in the country. Caucasus region.
“Obviously Russia is not going to let go very easily but Russia is losing its war in Ukraine,” she said.
Georgia and Ukraine were once part of the Russian-dominated former Soviet Union.
Critics say 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 dispute over the status of two Russian-backed breakaway regions that erupted in war in 2008.
Georgian Dream chairman Irakli Kobakhidze said Wednesday that the law would help weed 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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