Police in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi have fired water cannons and tear gas to disperse crowds protesting a proposed “foreign agents” law, reminiscent of a Russian measure used to silence critics.
Hundreds of police officers gathered in the streets around Georgia’s parliament building late Wednesday evening in an attempt to break up protests. Thousands gathered there for a second day, holding flags of Georgia and the European Union and chanting “no to Russian law”.
Tear gas poured down central Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi, where the parliament is located, forcing at least some of the demonstrators to leave.
The protesters are demanding that authorities drop the “Transparency of Foreign Funding” law, which requires organizations that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents” or face significant fines.
The ruling Georgian Dream party says it is modeled on legislation in the United States that dates back to the 1930s. Critics, including President Salome Zourabichvili, say it is similar to a law enacted by Russia in 2012 that has been used to shut down or discredit organizations critical of the government and jeopardize Georgia’s chances of EU membership. can harm.
Georgia, along with Ukraine and Moldova, applied for EU membership just days after Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year.
In June, EU leaders granted formal candidate status to Kyiv and Chisinau, but told Tbilisi it had to implement several reforms before it could be considered.
Thousands of people have been gathering in Tbilisi for days to protest against the law and skirmishes broke out on Tuesday after lawmakers approved the measure at first reading. Police used tear gas and water cannons against the protesters and said more than 70 people had been arrested. Some 50 police officers were also injured, they said.
The protests began on Wednesday afternoon with a march down Rustaveli Avenue on the occasion of International Women’s Day, a public holiday.
“We cannot let our country become pro-Russian or a Russian state or undemocratic,” said Vakhtang Berikashvili, a 33-year-old software engineer.
Another protester, Elene Ksovreli, 16, said the Georgian people “will not allow Russia to determine our future”.
“We young people are here to protect everything,” she told AFP news agency.
Aza Akhvlediani, 72, called the Georgian government “stupid”.
“I know what is happening in Moscow. They stop every passerby and do whatever they want. I think the Georgian government wants the same thing,” she said.
Politicians in the EU have also expressed concern.
The draft law “goes directly against the stated ambition of the Georgian authorities to obtain candidate status for EU membership,” said a statement by EU members Maria Kaljurand and Sven Mikser. “The aim of the new law, under the guise of promoting transparency, is to stigmatize the work of civil society organizations and media,” the statement said.
In response to the situation, the US urged the Georgian government to show “restraint” and allow peaceful protests, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for “democratic success” in “friendly Georgia”.
The bill has deepened the rift between Georgian Dream, who has a parliamentary majority, and Zourabichvili, the pro-European president who has withdrawn from the party since being elected with his support in 2018.
She has promised to veto the bill if it reaches her desk, though parliament can override her.
Speaking to CNN, Zourabichvili urged authorities to refrain from using force and portrayed Georgia as a victim of aggression by Russia, which she said was determined to maintain influence in the Caucasus.
“It is clear that Russia will not let 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 Georgian Dream is too close to Russia and has led the country in a more repressive direction.
Georgian society is strongly anti-Moscow after years of conflict over the status of two Russian-backed breakaway regions, which erupted into war in 2008.
Georgian Dream chairman Irakli Kobakhidze said on Wednesday the law would help weed out those who go against the interests of the country and the powerful Georgian Orthodox Church.
He criticized Georgia’s “radical opposition” for inciting protesters.