Thousands protest as Georgia parliament advances ‘foreign influence’ bill

Lawmakers voted 83 to 23 to adopt the bill in a second reading, despite three weeks of anti-government protests.

A demonstrator makes a heart-shaped gesture while standing in front of a police cordon during a rally to protest against a bill on "foreign agents" in Tbilisi, Georgia, May 1, 2024. Georgian parliament is set to debate the second reading of the bill described as authoritarian and Russian-inspired by Georgia's opposition and Western countries. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze
A demonstrator makes a heart-shaped gesture while standing in front of a police cordon during a rally to protest against the 'foreign agents' bill in Tbilisi, Georgia [Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters]

Georgia’s parliament has approved the second reading of a “foreign influence” bill that has been criticised as mirroring a draconian Russian law, as thousands of protesters opposed to the draft demonstrated outside the parliament building.

Lawmakers on Wednesday voted 83 to 23 to adopt the bill in a second reading, despite three weeks of rolling protests against the bill in the South Caucasus country. The ruling party has said it wants to sign it into law by mid-May.

The vote comes after police arrested dozens of protesters overnight. Huge demonstrations have been held in recent days calling for the bill – which it is feared would stifle dissent and derail the country’s bid to join the European Union – to be ditched.

Security forces used water cannon, tear gas and stun grenades as thousands rallied against the bill outside parliament in Tbilisi on Tuesday night.

Sixty-three protesters were arrested and six police officers were injured, Deputy Interior Minister Aleksandre Darakhvelidze said. Media reports suggested many demonstrators were injured.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell condemned the violent police crackdown.

“Georgia is an EU candidate country, I call on its authorities to ensure the right to peaceful assembly. Use of force to suppress it is unacceptable,” Borrell said in a post on X on Wednesday.

Georgia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs said police used “legitimate force” only after the protest had “turned violent and demonstrators entered in a verbal and physical confrontation with law enforcement”.

The protests, called the “March for Europe”, have run into a third week as the ruling Georgian Dream party tries to push the bill through parliament.

An effort last year to approve the legislation, which is condemned by critics as copying draconian legislation in Russia, was scuppered after mass rallies.

The EU approved Georgia’s candidate status in December, but has suggested the bill could derail Tbilisi’s hopes of European integration if passed.

The bill would require media and non-commercial organisations getting more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as “pursuing the interests of a foreign power”.

Georgians march 'for Europe', protest controversial bill
Demonstrators rally in Tbilisi on April 28, 2024 against the ‘foreign influence bill’, which Brussels warns would undermine Georgia’s EU aspirations [Giorgi Arjevanidze/AFP]


Lawmakers had abandoned the second reading of the bill on Tuesday. As the debate resumed on Wednesday, MPs tussled physically once more.

Punches were thrown last month in the hallways of parliament during discussions about the bill.

One pro-government deputy was seen on Georgian television on Wednesday throwing a book at opposition legislators, some of whom showed signs of having been injured the previous evening.

Levan Khabeishvili, leader of the United National Movement party, Georgia’s largest opposition bloc, turned up in parliament with a swollen face, missing teeth and a bandage across his nose.

Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire founder of the ruling party and former prime minister, asserts that the bill would bolster national sovereignty amid what he said were Western attempts to lead Georgia into a confrontation with Russia.

Giorgi Vashadze, an opposition politician, said Georgians have the right to peacefully protest and the behaviour of the ruling party and law enforcement agencies is “completely illegal”.

To become law, the bill needs to pass in three separate rounds of voting in parliament. Georgia’s next parliamentary elections are scheduled for October.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies