Georgian parliament passes 'foreign agent' bill, prompting US anger, new protests


  • World
  • Wednesday, 15 May 2024

Law enforcement officers detain a demonstrator during a rally to protest against a bill on "foreign agents" in Tbilisi, Georgia, May 14, 2024. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

TBILISI (Reuters) -Georgia's parliament on Tuesday passed the third and final reading of a "foreign agents" bill, prompting a warning from the United States that if the legislation failed to meet European Union standards, Washington could review relations.

Thousands of protesters, who along with Western nations denounce the bill as authoritarian and Russian-inspired, massed in the centre of Tbilisi, shutting down a major intersection controlling traffic between different neighbourhoods.

After passage on third reading, the bill now goes to President Salome Zourabichvili, who has said she will veto it, but her decision can be overridden by another vote in parliament, controlled by the ruling party and its allies.

The law would require organisations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as agents of foreign influence, imposing onerous disclosure requirements and punitive fines for violations.

Opponents see the bill as a test of whether the country stays on a path towards integration with Europe or pivots back towards Russia.

In Washington, the White House said the United States was "deeply troubled" by the "Kremlin-style" agents legislation.

"If this legislation passes, this will compel us to fundamentally reassess our relationship with Georgia," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James O'Brien, visiting Tbilisi, said Washington could impose financial and travel restrictions unless the bill underwent change or if security forces forcibly broke up protests as has occurred in recent weeks.

"If the law goes forward without conforming to EU norms and this kind of rhetoric and aspersions against the U.S. and other partners continue, I think the relationship is at risk," he said.

The bill passed with 84 members of parliament out of 150 voting in favour. Georgian television broadcast scuffles between ruling party and opposition lawmakers during the debate.

Opponents have dubbed the bill "the Russian law," comparing it to Russian legislation used to target critics of President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin.

Georgia's government says the bill is needed to promote transparency, combat "pseudo-liberal values" promoted by foreigners and preserve the country's sovereignty.

WEEKS OF DEMONSTRATIONS

Demonstrations have been running for weeks and typically peak in the evening, where crowds in the tens of thousands have mounted some of the biggest protests in Georgia since it regained independence from Moscow in 1991.

The European Union, which gave Georgia candidate status in December, has repeatedly said the bill will be a barrier to Tbilisi's further integration with the bloc.

The ruling Georgian Dream party says it wants to join both the EU and NATO, even as it has adopted anti-Western rhetoric in recent months.

Polls show public opinion is strongly supportive of EU integration. Many Georgians are hostile to Russia over Moscow's support for the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The United States, Britain, Germany, Italy and France have all urged Georgia to withdraw the bill.

The Kremlin denies any role in inspiring the Georgian bill.

"We see an unveiled intervention in the internal affairs of Georgia from the outside," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday. "This is an internal matter of Georgia, we do not want to interfere there in any way."

(Reporting by Felix Light in TbilisiWriting by Lucy PapachristouEditing by Ron Popeski, Janet Lawrence and Matthew Lewis)

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