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

After lawmakers introduced a controversial foreign influence bill, rights groups claim it will limit media freedom and restrict civil society, violent clashes broke out in Tbilisi’s capital.

In Georgia, where the government is increasingly at odds with Western officials over rights records amid concerns that it is moving toward the Kremlin, the bill passed an initial vote. Draft law would require media outlets and nongovernmental organizations that receive more than 20% of their annual revenues from abroad to register as agents of foreign influence. This would expose them to further scrutiny with severe penalties for any violations.

The Interior Ministry reported that both law enforcement officers and protestors were hurt in Tuesday’s incident. Reuters reported that authorities used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters who had thrown stones and petrol bombs. People shouted “Russians!” outside Parliament. According to social media video, Russians!” was the chant outside Parliament. This apparent reference to a Kremlin 2012 law that was later expanded and used to harass critics.

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The Interior Ministry described the protests at parliament as “extremely violence” and confirmed that petrol bombs were used. In a Wednesday statement, it said that 66 people were arrested and 50 security personnel sustained injuries.

According to the statement, although initially peaceful, the protest evolved into an “organized attack” against Parliament. “Members from the manifestation set fire at the building of Parliament, threw stones and smashed windows, and damaged the iron protective barriers.”

The bill could jeopardize the application of the former Soviet republic to join the European Union. This raised concerns about the draft law, and labeled it “inconsistent with European values”. The E.U. The E.U. flag was prominently displayed during Tuesday’s rally.

According to Agenda, an English language news platform associated with the government, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili made a bold statement Tuesday. He accused Georgian civil organizations of “fighting against the state interests” by using foreign funding. His administration is still pro-European but Georgia has the right to make its laws.

He said Wednesday that “eventually passions will subside” while accusing the opposition of using controversy over the bill to its political advantage.

Agenda reports that 76 of 113 legislators voted for the bill during Tuesday’s first hearing. Independent President Salome Zurabishvili said that she would veto any law passed by parliament. However, observers stated that Garibashvili has the votes to override such an veto.

In 2008, Georgia was involved in a brief, but disastrous, war with Russia. Russian troops now occupy a part of the territory that is still independent. While most Georgians support the West, polling shows that the majority of them are pro-West. However, some experts believe the Dream party’s policies have made it less pro-West.

“Over the last few years and especially the past 18 month, Georgia’s ruling alliance has made successive moves which seem to have been designed to distance the nation from the West and shift the country gradually into Russia’s orbit of influence,” stated a December 2022 report by the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Kelly Degnan, U.S. ambassador to Tbilisi, stated that the foreign agent bill would have a “devastating effect” on Georgian rights groups. She also said that similar legislation in Russia had suppressed media voices and silenced them.

Maria Zakharova (Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman), responded to the controversy by accusing America of having similar laws. Telegram: “It is now clear why the United States has not yet joined the European Union — this Law has been in effect there since 1938,” she wrote.

The U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act targets lobbyists, politicians, and others acting for a foreign government, while the proposed Georgian law targets individuals, media, and civil society groups. It is similar to the Russian law that was used to close down prominent rights groups, independent media, and other law enforcement agencies.

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“Under the cover of transparency, the most recent statements by the Georgian authorities strongly indicate that if adopted the law will be weaponized in order to further stigmatize, penalize independent media, media, and voices in the country,” stated Giorgi Gogia (associate director for Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch).

Georgia applied for membership in the European Union last year against the backdrop the Russian invasion Ukraine. Even though applicants like Ukraine and Moldova were granted candidate status, Georgia was advised to continue with political reforms.

Authorities have taken Mikheil Saakashvili into custody, a former pro-American president. This is a case European officials call politically motivated. Over the past two-years, Georgia has also fallen sharply in a major index of press freedom.