In Georgia, controversial 'foreign influence' bill returns to Parliament

Waving European and Georgian flags, thousands of people gathered on Sunday April 28 at Republic Square in central Tbilisi

In Georgia, controversial 'foreign influence' bill returns to Parliament

Waving European and Georgian flags, thousands of people gathered on Sunday April 28 at Republic Square in central Tbilisi. The demonstrators, numbering around 20,000 according to an Agence France-Presse (AFP) journalist on site, then began a one-kilometer "march for Europe" on the city's main avenue, to join the Georgian Parliament.

It is here that a bill on “foreign influence”, which its opponents consider to be liberticidal, will be examined on Monday. The text has already brought thousands of Georgians into the streets since it was tabled in Parliament for the second time in mid-April by the ruling Georgian Dream party. It is denounced for its similarity with a law adopted in Russia, which made it possible in a few years to silence opposition to President Vladimir Putin.

“I am here to defend the future of Georgia,” said one of the demonstrators, Lacha Tckheidze, 19, on Sunday. “No to Russia, no to Russian law, yes to Europe! “, he said. The project arouses concern in Brussels, which has warned that the adoption of this type of law could destroy Georgia's chances of joining the European Union (EU).

The Georgian Dream party announced that it would organize its own demonstration on Monday, when the text is to be considered for second reading in Parliament. If adopted, this law would notably force any NGO or media receiving more than 20% of its funding from abroad to register administratively as an “organization defending the interests of a foreign power”.

Riot police deployed

The demonstration, largely peaceful on Sunday, experienced a moment of tension when participants tried to cross a police cordon in front of the Parliament building to hang the European flag there, noted an AFP journalist. After midnight, hundreds of riot police were deployed to this area of ​​the city, with the Interior Ministry denouncing the “violent” turn the rally had taken.

Previous demonstrations in recent days were broken up by police in the alleys of the city center, with officers beating and questioning those present. Sunday's was organized at the call of around a hundred human rights groups and opposition parties, which have until now remained on the sidelines in a fight which mainly mobilized young people.

“The authorities, who reintroduced the Russian bill, go beyond what the Constitution allows and change the direction given to the country, betraying the unchanging will of the people,” the organizers wrote in a statement. “This law, like this government, is incompatible with Georgia's historic choice to be a member of the European Union,” Nika Gvaramia, the leader of the opposition Akhali party, told AFP in the manifestation.

The president assures that she will veto

“The sincere protest today of thousands of Georgians against the Russian law is new proof that Georgians are already Europeans, Georgia is already in Europe,” wrote former Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, on the social network

The Georgian president, the former French diplomat Salomé Zourabichvili, in conflict with the ruling party but whose powers are restricted, assured that she would veto the promulgation of this law if necessary.

A first attempt to pass this text failed a year ago after mass demonstrations during which the police used tear gas and water cannons.

A former Soviet republic in the Caucasus, Georgia took a pro-Western turn two decades ago, an orientation long supported by former President Mikheïl Saakashvili, now imprisoned. The party currently in power, Georgian Dream, is accused by the opposition of insidiously bringing the country back towards Moscow.