Tens of thousands of people demonstrated on Wednesday in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, against a controversial bill targeting the media and NGOs, the day after clashes between opponents and police.
In the city center, flags of Georgia and the European Union were waved by the demonstrators, gathered in front of the national Parliament, according to an AFP journalist.
"No to Russian law!" Chanted the crowd gathered at the call of several NGOs and opposition groups, in reference to the bill adopted Tuesday by Georgian deputies at first reading.
This text provides that organizations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad are obliged to register as "foreign agents", under penalty of fines.
According to its critics, this project is modeled on a law passed in Russia in 2012 and which the Kremlin has since used to suppress the media and critical voices.
"This law is absolutely unconstitutional and goes against the will of the Georgian people to become a member of the EU", castigates Badri Okoujava, a young historian of 26 years.
Georgia, a former Soviet republic marked by a war against Russia in 2008, aims to join the EU and NATO. However, several recent government measures have cast doubt on these aspirations.
"The ideology of this government is disconnected from that of Western civilization," laments Giorgi Labushidze, 33. "We will not allow them to make Russia define our future," Elène Ksovréli, a 16-year-old girl, told AFP.
The figures for the number of demonstrators given by the police and the opposition were not immediately available, however.
Earlier Wednesday, more than 1,000 protesters had marched up the main avenue of Tbilisi, the capital of this small Caucasian country, to the Parliament building in the afternoon, on the occasion of International Women's Day.
The adoption of the draft law on "foreign agents" at first reading had led to the gathering of thousands of opponents in Tbilisi on Tuesday evening, protests dispersed with tear gas and water cannons.
The Georgian Interior Ministry said Wednesday that at least 77 people had been arrested and 50 police officers injured.
According to this source, some of the demonstrators arrested "were carrying objects intended for violent actions".
On Tuesday, the opposition Girch party said in a statement that its leader, Zurab Japaridze, had been violently clubbed "in the jaw" by police during the protests, then arrested and detained.
The chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Irakli Kobakhidze denounced the action of "radicals" and drew a parallel between these protests and the pro-European Maidan revolution in Ukraine in 2014.
"Ukraine, in the end, lost 20% of its territory" after this revolution, he said, referring to the Ukrainian territories conquered by Moscow since the annexation of Crimea and the Russian invasion of Ukraine from February 2022.
In a sign of growing concern in the West, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Wednesday condemned the bill, calling it "incompatible" with EU values and the goal of joining the European bloc.
Georgian President Salomé Zurabishvili called for the law to be "repealed", promising to veto it.
This veto could however be overcome by the ruling party, Georgian Dream, which controls more than half of the seats in Parliament.
According to Mr. Kobakhidze, the second and third reading of the text could however only take place in June, after the review of the bill by the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe.
In recent years, Georgian authorities have faced growing international criticism over an alleged rollback of democracy that has damaged Tbilisi's ties with Brussels.
Georgia applied for membership of the EU with Ukraine and Moldova a few days after the Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory on February 24, 2022.
In June, the EU granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, but demanded that Georgia carry out several reforms before obtaining a similar status.
08/03/2023 19:33:01 - Tbilisi (AFP) © 2023 AFP