Georgia opposition calls for more protests against ‘Kremlin-inspired’ law

TBILISI, Georgia — Thousands of demonstrators marched toward Georgia’s parliament on Wednesday, protesting against a “foreign agents” bill that critics say highlights the country’s democratic backsliding and brings it closer to Moscow.

Waving Georgian and European flags, the demonstrators chanted: “No to Russian law! as they walked down the main avenue of the country’s capital, Tbilisi, towards the Parliament. The new protests came a day after riot police used tear gas, water cannons and arrests to disperse a large-scale gathering there.

Georgia, a mountainous country of 3.6 million people, is strategically positioned in the middle of the Caucasus, a region that for centuries has been the scene of a geopolitical standoff between Russia, Turkey, Western states and Iran. The war in Ukraine has exacerbated already polarized domestic politics in Georgia, where the strongly pro-Western opposition has accused the ruling party of siding with Russia.

Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, the EU’s group of heads of government, said on Wednesday he was “deeply concerned about developments” in Georgia.

Opposition lawmakers and members of non-governmental organizations have vowed to return to the center of the city in greater numbers later Wednesday to protest the bill. The opposition has also called on its supporters to demonstrate in other cities across the country.

Georgia’s Interior Ministry on Tuesday accused protesters of using violence against police. The ministry said in A declaration that its officers arrested 66 protesters overnight and charged them with hooliganism and disobedience.

Although the Georgian government enjoys a comfortable majority in parliament, the country’s non-governmental organization sector and many major news media are siding with the opposition. The “foreign influence” bill is widely seen by them as an attempt to replicate similar Russian legislation to put pressure on the country’s vibrant civil society.

The legislation would require non-governmental groups and media that receive more than 20% of their funding from a “foreign power” to register as “agents of foreign influence”. Violations would result in hefty fines.

The bill – backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party and the country’s prime minister – passed a first reading on Tuesday and is also expected to pass second and third readings. Salome Zurabishvili, the country’s president, said she would veto it, but her role has limited power and the ruling party has enough votes to overrule it.

Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, said Wednesday that the opposition had used “unprecedented violence” against the police. He said the draft law had been sent for review to the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe.

The commission is expected to deliver its findings in a few months, he said, although members of the ruling party have said they will back the law whatever the EU bodies decide.

Georgia’s pro-Western opposition sees the law as following the model of Russian legislation passed in 2012, which the Kremlin used to stigmatize civil society. Some 400 non-governmental organizations and media groups sign a petition stating that “Russian law is not the will of Georgia”.

The bill was welcomed almost universally conviction Western governments and civil society organizations. In A declarationthe U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi called the bill “Kremlin-inspired” and said it would “harm Georgia’s relations with its strategic partners.”

Georgia fought a painful five day war with Russia in 2008, during which the Kremlin took military control of a fifth of the country’s territory. Georgian opposition members argue that the government in Tbilisi could do more to support Ukraine’s efforts to repel the Russian invasion, but Georgia has abstained to impose sanctions on Moscow.

On Tuesday, shortly after lawmakers said they would push forward the Foreign Agents Act, thousands of protesters marched into parliament. Some tried to prevent lawmakers from leaving the building. Riot police wearing helmets and shields fired tear gas at the crowd, and a water cannon was used to drive protesters away from the building.

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