- By Rehan Dimitri
- BBC News, Tbilisi
Protesters clashed with police in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, after parliament backed a controversial bill that critics say curtails press freedom and suppresses civil society.
Riot police used water cannon and pepper spray to disperse the crowds outside the parliament building.
Some protesters were seen falling to the ground and coughing, while others waved EU and Georgian flags.
The government says a number of policemen were injured and police equipment was damaged.
There was widespread international condemnation of the bill, which would require NGOs and independent media that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad to declare themselves as foreign agents.
The opposition described it as a Russian-style law that would stigmatize and stifle Georgia’s active civil society and independent media.
Russia passed its own version of the “foreign agents” law in 2012, and has expanded it over the years to target and crack down on Western-funded non-governmental organizations and media.
“The law is Russian as we all know… We don’t want to be part of the former Soviet Union, we want to be part of the European Union, we want to be pro-Western,” one protester told Reuters news agency.
The country’s president, Salome Zurabishvili, says she supports the protesters, saying they represent what she called a free Georgia that saw its future in Europe.
But inside the parliament building, 76 deputies from the ruling Georgian Dream party gave their principled support to the new “foreign influence transparency” bill.
On Monday, a committee hearing on the proposed legislation ended in a parliamentary squabble.
Passing the law would bring Georgia into the list of undemocratic and authoritarian post-Soviet states like Belarus, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan that have copied Russia’s law on restricting NGO activities.
Historically, the term “agent” in Russia and Georgia has the meaning of “spy” and “traitor”, giving a negative connotation to the work done by civil society. He points out that they are acting in the interests of foreign forces rather than doing good for the country and society.
The US embassy issued a statement calling Tuesday’s vote “a dark day for democracy in Georgia.”
She added that the parliament’s submission of “these Kremlin-inspired laws contradicts the clear desire of the people of Georgia for European integration and its democratic development.”
The two bills, on “Transparency for Foreign Clients” and “Registration of Foreign Clients”, were submitted to parliament by the anti-Western People Power movement, a close ally of the ruling Georgian Dream party.
The group argued that the second law was an exact analogue of the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
Georgian Dream supported the drafts, saying such laws are needed to improve transparency.
At a press briefing on Tuesday evening, the head of the ruling party, Irakli Kobakhidze, responded to the US embassy’s statement, saying it was “a black day for the radical opposition and its supporters.”
What most of the country’s protesters and opposition fear is that the adoption of the law will end Georgia’s long-standing ambition to join the European Union. More than 80% of Georgians support the European perspective of Georgia, which is also enshrined in the country’s constitution.
Brussels is currently considering Georgia’s application for EU candidate status.
On Tuesday evening, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said the bill “contradicts the values and standards of the European Union.”
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