Georgian Opposition Urges More Protests Over ‘Kremlin-Inspired’ Law

TBILISI, Georgia — Opposition activists in Georgia on Wednesday called on their supporters to continue protests over a draft law on “foreign agents,” after riot police officers used tear gas, water cannons and arrests to disperse a large-scale rally in front of the country’s Parliament a day earlier.

Opposition lawmakers and members of nongovernmental organizations said they would return to the center of the city on Wednesday to protest the draft law, which critics say highlights the country’s democratic backsliding and pushes it closer to Moscow. The opposition also called on supporters to protest in other cities across the country.

Georgia, a mountainous country of 3.6 million people, is strategically positioned in the middle of the Caucasus, a region that for centuries has been the arena for geopolitical tug of war between Russia, Turkey, Western states and Iran. The war in Ukraine has exacerbated the already polarized internal politics in Georgia, where the vocally pro-Western opposition has accused the governing party of siding with Russia.

The country’s interior ministry accused the protesters of using violence against the police on Tuesday. The ministry said in a statement that its officers had detained 66 protesters overnight and charged them with hooliganism and disobedience.

Although the Georgian government enjoys a comfortable majority in Parliament, the country’s nongovernmental organization sector and many major news media outlets side with the opposition. The draft law on “foreign influence” is widely seen by them as an attempt to replicate similar Russian legislation to exert pressure on the country’s vibrant civil society.

The draft law would require nongovernmental groups and media outlets that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from a “foreign power” to register as “agents of foreign influence.” Violations would incur hefty fines.

The bill — backed by the governing Georgian Dream party and the country’s prime minister — made it through a first reading on Tuesday and is expected to also be approved in second and third readings. Salome Zourabichvili, the country’s president, said she would veto it, but her role has limited power and the governing party has enough votes to override.

Irakli Kobakhidze, the chairman of the governing Georgian Dream party, said on Wednesday that the opposition had used “unprecedented violence” against law enforcement. He said the draft bill had been sent for consideration to the Venice Commission, a consultative body of the Council of Europe.

The commission is set to give its conclusions in a few months, he said, although members of the governing party said they would support the law regardless of what European bodies decided.

Georgia’s vocal pro-Western opposition sees the law as following the model of Russian legislation passed in 2012, which the Kremlin used to stigmatize civil society. Some 400 nongovernmental organizations and media groups signed a petition declaring that “Russian law is not the will of Georgia.”

The bill has been met with almost universal condemnation from Western governments and civil society organizations. In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi called the draft law “Kremlin-inspired” and said it would “damage Georgia’s relations with its strategic partners.”

Georgia fought a painful five-day war with Russia in 2008, during which the Kremlin took military control of a fifth of the country’s territory. Members of Georgia’s opposition argue that the government in Tbilisi could do more to support Ukraine’s efforts to repel Russia’s invasion, but Georgia has refrained from imposing sanctions on Moscow.

On Tuesday, shortly after lawmakers said they would advance the foreign agent law, thousands of protesters came to the Parliament building. Some chanted, “No to the Russian law!” Others tried to block lawmakers from leaving the building.

Riot police officers in helmets and holding shields dispensed tear gas against the crowd, and a water cannon was used to push the protesters away from the building.

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