March 28, 2023

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‘No to Russian law’: Georgians protest ‘foreign agents’ law | News

Police use water cannon and tear gas as thousands gather in Tbilisi to protest a proposed foreign agents law.

Police in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, fired water cannons and tear gas to disperse crowds protesting against a proposed “foreign agents” law reminiscent of the Russian measure used to silence critics.

Hundreds of police gathered in the streets around the Georgian parliament building late Wednesday night in an attempt to disperse the protests. Thousands gathered there for a second day, carrying Georgian and European Union flags and chanting “No to Russian law”.

Tear gas billowed on Rustaveli Street in central Tbilisi, where Parliament is located, forcing at least some of the protesters to move away.

The protesters are calling for the authorities to drop the “Foreign Funding Transparency” bill, which would require any organization that receives more than 20 percent of its funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents” or face heavy fines.

The ruling Georgian Dream party says it is modeled on legislation in the United States dating back to the 1930s. Critics, including President Salome Zurabishvili, say it is similar to a law passed by Russia in 2012 that has been used to shut down or discredit organizations critical of the government and could hurt Georgia’s chances of joining the European Union.

Protesters wave placards and the European Union flag during a demonstration in front of the Georgian Parliament, in Tbilisi on March 7, 2023. [Stringer/ AFP]

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 Kiev and Chisinau but told Tbilisi it had to implement several reforms before they could be considered.

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Thousands of people have been demonstrating for days in Tbilisi to protest against the law and Clashes broke out on Tuesday after lawmakers approved the measure in its first reading. Police used tear gas and water cannon against the demonstrators and said more than 70 people were arrested. They added that about 50 policemen were also wounded.

The protests resumed on Wednesday afternoon with a march down Rustaveli Avenue to mark International Women’s Day, which is a public holiday.

“We can’t allow our country to become pro-Russian or pro-Russian, or undemocratic,” said Vakhtang Berekashvili, a 33-year-old software engineer.

Another protester, Ellen Ksofreli, 16, said that the Georgian people “will not allow them to make Russia determine our future.”

“We, the youth, are here to protect everything,” she told AFP.

Azza Akhvlediani, 72, called the Georgian government “stupid”.

ā€œI know what is happening in Moscow. They stop every passer-by and do whatever they like. I think the Georgian government wants the same thing,ā€ she said.

European Union politicians have also expressed concern.

A statement by Maria Kaljurand and Sven Mixer said the bill “is in direct contradiction with the declared aspiration of the Georgian authorities to obtain candidate status for EU membership”. The statement added, “The aim of the new law, under the guise of enhancing transparency, is to stigmatize the work of civil society organizations and the media.”

Riot police block a street to stop protesters in front of the Georgian Parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia, early Thursday, March 9, 2023. [Zurab Tsertsvadze/ AP]

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”.

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The bill deepened the rift between Georgian Dream, who has a parliamentary majority, and Zurabishvili, the pro-European president who has estranged himself from the party since his election with party support in 2018.

She has vowed to veto the bill if it reaches her desk, although parliament can override it.

Zurabishvili, speaking to CNN, urged the authorities to refrain from the use of force and portrayed Georgia as a victim of aggression from Russia, which she said was determined to maintain its influence in the Caucasus region.

“It is clear that Russia will not let things go 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 the Georgian dream is too close to Russia and has taken the country in an even more repressive direction.

Georgian society is staunchly anti-Moscow after years of conflict over the status of two Russian-backed separatist regions, which erupted into war in 2008.

Irakli Kobakhidze, head of the Georgian Dream organization, said on Wednesday the law would help root out those who work against the interests of the country and the powerful Georgian Orthodox Church.

He criticized the “radical Georgia opposition” for stirring up the protesters.