UN, EU, US urge Georgia to halt ‘foreign agents’ bill as protests grow

Thousands gather in Tbilisi to protest against the bill, which passed its second reading in parliament this week.

Demonstrators hold a rally to protest against a bill on 'foreign agents' in Tbilisi, Georgia [Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters]

The European Union, United Nations, and the United States have condemned legislation making its way through Georgia’s parliament on “foreign agents”, as thousands of protesters snarled traffic in the country’s capital Tbilisi on Thursday with a large new protest against the bill.

Protesters poured into Heroes’ Square, a key junction through which much of Tbilisi’s traffic passes between the city’s neighbourhoods. Long queues of vehicles remained blocked.

“We are all together to show the Kremlin’s puppets that we will not accept the government that goes against the Georgian people’s wishes,” said protester Giorgi Loladze, 27, from Kutaisi, Georgia’s third-largest city.

Tens of thousands of protesters had shut down central Tbilisi a day earlier in the largest anti-government rally yet. Police fired tear gas and stun grenades to clear some of them.

The bill – attacked by opponents as authoritarian and Kremlin-inspired – has completed two of three readings in the parliament and the latest comments reflected alarm in both Washington and Brussels over the country’s future direction.

The ruling Georgian Dream party says the law, which would require organisations receiving more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as agents of foreign influence, is needed to ensure transparency.

The party’s billionaire founder said this week that Georgia must defend its sovereignty against Western attempts to dictate to it.

Crowds have protested nightly for weeks outside the parliament in Tbilisi. Inside the building, lawmakers have come to blows.

‘Deeply concerned’

The standoff is seen as part of a wider struggle that could determine whether Georgia, a country of 3.7 million people that has seen war and revolution since the fall of the Soviet Union, moves closer towards Europe or back under Moscow’s influence.

Gert Jan Koopman, director general of the European Commission’s enlargement directorate, reiterated the EU’s warning that the bill would put at risk Georgia’s hopes of becoming a member of the bloc.

“There are concerning developments in terms of legislation. The law … as it stands is unacceptable and will create serious obstacles for the EU accession path,” he told a news conference in Tbilisi.

Koopman said “the ball is very firmly in the court of the government”, adding it still had time to change course.

But the government – which put forward a similar law last year, only to withdraw it in the face of protests – has shown no sign it will climb down a second time, which could be damaging ahead of a parliamentary election in October.

Police officers lead a demonstrator away as people hold a rally to protest against a bill on ‘foreign agents’ in Tbilisi, Georgia [Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters]

UN rights chief Volker Turk on Thursday called on Georgia’s government to withdraw the bill and expressed concern at police violence against protesters.

The White House also expressed concerns on Thursday about the chilling effect such legislation could have on Georgians’ ability and willingness to express themselves.

“We are deeply concerned about this legislation – what it could do in terms of stifling dissent and free speech,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said at a US briefing.

Earlier, US Ambassador Robin Dunnigan said the Georgian government’s choices “have moved the country away from its Euro-Atlantic future” and urged it to recommit to integration with the West.

In a statement, Dunnigan said that senior US leaders had invited Georgia to discuss the issue, but that the country had not accepted the offer.

Britain, Italy and Germany have also criticised the bill.

Georgia’s parliament on Wednesday approved the second reading of the bill, which the opposition says is modelled on a law the Kremlin has used to crack down on opponents in Russia.

Parliamentary debates on Thursday were cancelled after what officials called an “attack” on the legislature.

Georgian television on Thursday showed Tbilisi’s Mayor Kakha Kaladze berating a reporter who asked him about police actions at Wednesday’s protest, calling her a “shameless scumbag”.

Lawmakers are expected to give the bill its third and final reading in around two weeks.

Source: News Agencies