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Violent clashes in Georgia over ‘foreign influence’ law opposed by West


Violent clashes broke out between protesters and police in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi on Tuesday evening after lawmakers introduced a controversial foreign influence bill that human rights groups say will limit media freedom and civil society.

The bill has passed a first vote in Georgia, whose government has increasingly clashed with Western officials over its rights record, fearing it will drift towards the Kremlin. The draft law would require non-governmental organizations and media outlets that receive more than 20 percent of their annual revenue from abroad to register as “agents of foreign influence,” subjecting them to additional scrutiny, with potentially significant penalties for violations.

Both law enforcement and protesters were injured in Tuesday’s incident, the Interior Ministry said. Authorities used water cannons and tear gas to disperse protesters, some of whom threw rocks and petrol bombs, Reuters reported. People outside parliament chanted “Russians! Russians!” according to video shared on social media, in an apparent allusion to a 2012 law passed by the Kremlin, which was subsequently expanded and used to harass critics.

The bill threatens to jeopardize the former Soviet republic’s application to join the European Union, which raised concerns about the draft law, calling it “inconsistent” with European values. The EU flag was prominently displayed during Tuesday night’s rally.

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Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili struck a defiant tone on Tuesday, accusing Georgian civilian groups of “fighting against state interests” using foreign funding, Agenda, an English-language news platform affiliated with the government, reported. He said his government was still pro-European, but Georgia had the “sovereign” right to decide its laws.

Seventy-six of the 113 lawmakers voted in favor of the bill in the first hearing Tuesday, according to Agenda. President Salome Zourabichvili, an independent who has become increasingly critical of the ruling Dream party, said she would veto the law if it would pass parliament. But Garibashvili has enough votes to override such a veto, observers said.

Georgia fought a short, disastrous war with Russia in 2008, and Kremlin troops occupied part of a breakaway territory. Opinion polls show that most Georgians are pro-Western, but some experts say the Dream Party’s policies have pushed her out of Brussels.

“In recent years, and especially in the past 18 months, Georgia’s ruling coalition has taken a series of moves that appear designed to remove the country from the West and gradually move it into Russia’s sphere of influence,” a report said. from December 2022. published by the European Council for External Relations.

The foreign agents law will have a “devastating impact” on rights groups in Georgia, US Ambassador to Tbilisi Kelly Degnan said Monday, adding that “similar legislation in Russia” had silenced the media and dissent.

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The legislation is an attempt to “restrict critical groups and critical media, violate Georgia’s international obligations and would have a seriously chilling effect on groups and individuals committed to protecting human rights, democracy and the rule of law,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe. and director of Central Asia at Human Rights Watch.

Georgia applied to join the European Union last year against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But while candidates like Moldova and Ukraine were given candidate status, Georgia was told to implement political reforms.

In recent years, authorities have jailed pro-US former president Mikheil Saakashvili in a case European officials say is politically motivated. It also fell sharply on a major press freedom index over the past two years.

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