Georgia's parliament passes controversial 'foreign agents' bill amid mass protests and U.S. warnings

Georgia's parliament passes controversial 'foreign agents' bill amid mass protests and U.S. warnings
Thousands of protesters, along with Western nations, have condemned the bill as authoritarian and inspired by Russia. / bne IntelliNews
By Tornike Mandaria in Tbilisi May 15, 2024

Georgia's parliament passed the third and final reading of the controversial "foreign agents" bill on May 14, triggering anger among the tens of thousands protesting against it for the past month and a strong warning from the United States.
Washington said it might reassess its relations with Georgia if the legislation was not made to align with European Union standards.
Thousands of protesters, along with Western nations, have condemned the bill as authoritarian and inspired by Russia. They have blocked a major intersection in Tbilisi, snarling up traffic in the country's capital.
"I am angry and frustrated. They are destroying our European future!" one protester said. 
The bill now awaits the decision of President Salome Zourabichvili, who has vowed to veto it. However, the parliament, controlled by the ruling party, can override her veto.
The proposed law mandates organisations receiving over 20% of their funding from abroad to register as foreign agents, subjecting them to stringent disclosure requirements and punitive fines if they refuse to comply.
Critics argue that the bill tests whether Georgia will continue its path toward European integration or revert to Russian influence. 
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James O'Brien, visiting Tbilisi, suggested that Washington might impose financial and travel restrictions on certain individuals if the bill remained unchanged or if security forces violently suppressed protests, as seen in recent weeks.
O'Brien expressed concern that the bill and the ruling party's anti-Western rhetoric represent a potential turning point in Georgia's history, suggesting U.S. aid might be reevaluated. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. has invested billions in Georgia's reconstruction, with plans for further economic and military support. 
The EU is also reportedly looking at potential sanctions, including freezing accession talks, suspending the payment of new funds, or suspending visa liberalisaton. Any sanctions are likely to be imposed after parliament overrules the president's veto.
The bill passed with 84 out of 150 parliamentary members voting in favour. Georgian television showed scuffles between ruling party and opposition lawmakers during the debate. Opponents have labelled the bill "the Russian law," drawing parallels to Russian legislation used to stifle critics of President Vladimir Putin. A fight broke out on the floor of the parliamentary chambers during the vote to approve the bill.

Georgia's government defends the bill as necessary for promoting transparency, combating "pseudo-liberal values" promoted by foreigners, and preserving national sovereignty.
The ruling Georgian Dream party has lashed out at the West, accusing it of secretly funding violence and the opposition crowds trying to derail the vote.
The European Union, which granted Georgia candidate status in December, has repeatedly stated that the bill would hinder Tbilisi's further integration with the bloc.
For weeks, demonstrations have drawn tens of thousands to the streets, marking some of the largest protests since Georgia gained independence from Moscow in 1991.
Public opinion in Georgia strongly favours EU integration, with many citizens harbouring animosity towards Russia due to its invasion of the country in 2008 and support for the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. 
Protests outside the parliament saw riot police using tear gas, while inside, MPs clashed physically. Demonstrators continued their peaceful protests into the night, blocking major streets. The European Commission reiterated that the new law would undermine Georgia’s EU membership prospects, and student strikes from 30 universities added to the unrest.
Opposition leaders argue that the bill underscores the urgent need for regime change in Georgia. With upcoming elections in October, they believe the current protests could mark a pivotal moment in Georgia's history, as it strives for a European future free from Russian influence.

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