TBILISI (Reuters) – Protesters in the tiny ex-Soviet state of Georgia hurled petrol bombs and stones at police on Tuesday night after parliament gave its initial support to a bill on “foreign agents” that critics say marks an authoritarian turn. .
Police in the center of the capital, Tbilisi, used water cannon and tear gas to try to disperse thousands of demonstrators who feared the bill would harm the South Caucasian country’s hopes of joining the European Union.
The law, backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party, requires any organization that receives more than 20% of its funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents,” or face heavy fines.
Critics said it was reminiscent of a 2012 law in Russia that has been used ever since to suppress dissent.
Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili, who wants to veto the law if it crosses her office, said she stands with the protesters.
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“You represent a free Georgia, a Georgia that sees its future in the West and will not let anyone take that future away,” she said in a speech recorded in the United States, where she is on an official visit.
“Nobody needs this law… everyone who voted for this law has violated the constitution,” she said. However, parliament can override the veto.
The demonstrators protested angrily, with police armed with riot shields using tear gas and water cannons. At least three petrol bombs, as well as rocks, were thrown at the police.
People suffering from the effects of tear gas were treated on the stairs outside Parliament House.
“I came here because I know my country belongs to Europe, but my government doesn’t understand that,” said 30-year-old protester Dimiter Shanshiashvili.
“We are here to protect our country because we don’t want to be part of Russia again,” he added, referring to the nearly two centuries Georgia spent as part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.
And Georgian media reported that earlier, the law comfortably passed its first parliamentary reading.
Some demonstrators gathered in front of the parliament building, carrying the flags of Georgia, Europe and the United States, and chanting “No to Russian law” and “You are Russian” in the face of politicians inside the legislature.
Many Georgians view Russia as an enemy after Moscow supported separatists in the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the 1990s. Hundreds of thousands of Georgians remain internally displaced inside the country after several bouts of bloody ethnic conflict.
Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Garibashvili, speaking in Berlin earlier on Tuesday, reiterated his support for the law, saying the proposed provisions on foreign clients conform to “European and global standards”.
State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters that the United States is closely following developments in Georgia.
The ruling party, which says it wants Georgia to join the European Union, has accused its critics of the bill of opposing the Georgian Orthodox Church, one of the country’s most respected and influential institutions.
A committee hearing on the law on Monday ended in a physical fight in Parliament.
More than 60 civil society organizations and media outlets have said they will not comply with the bill if it is signed into law.
In recent years Georgia’s government has faced criticism from observers who say the country is drifting toward authoritarianism. In June, the EU refused to grant Georgia candidate status along with Moldova and Ukraine, citing stalled political and judicial reforms.
Additional reporting by Felix Light, David Chickishvili, and Ben Taviner in Tbilisi and Vladimir Soldatekin in Moscow Editing by Andrew Osborne, Gareth Jones and Grant McCall
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