Police in the Georgian capital Tbilisi have fired water cannons and tear gas to disperse crowds protesting against a proposed “foreign agents” law that is reminiscent of a Russian measure used to silence critics.
Hundreds of police converged on streets around Georgia’s parliament building late on Wednesday night in a bid to break up the protests. Thousands gathered there for a second day, holding Georgian and European Union flags and chanting “no to the Russian law”.
Tear gas billowed down Tbilisi’s central Rustaveli Avenue, where parliament is located, forcing at least some of the demonstrators to move away.
The protesters are demanding authorities drop the bill on “transparency of foreign funding”, which requires any organisations receiving more than 20 percent of their funding from overseas to register as “foreign agents” or face substantial fines.
The ruling Georgian Dream party says it is modelled on legislation in the United States that dates from the 1930s. Critics, including President Salome Zourabichvili, say it is similar to a law Russia enacted in 2012 that has been used to shut down or discredit organisations critical of the government and could harm Georgia’s chances of EU membership.
Georgia applied for EU membership together with Ukraine and Moldova days after Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year.
In June, EU leaders granted formal candidate status to Kyiv and Chisinau but told Tbilisi it had to implement several reforms before it could be considered.
Thousands of people have been massing for days in Tbilisi to protest against the law and clashes broke out on Tuesday after legislators approved the measure in its first reading. Police used tear gas and water cannon against the demonstrators and said more than 70 people had been detained. Some 50 police officers were also wounded, they said.
The protests restarted on Wednesday afternoon with a march down Rustaveli Avenue to mark International Women’s Day, which is a public holiday.
“We cannot let our country become pro-Russian or a Russian state, or undemocratic,” said Vakhtang Berikashvili, a 33-year-old software engineer.
Another protester, Elene Ksovreli, 16, said the Georgian people “will not allow them to make Russia define our future”.
“We, young people, are here to protect our everything,” she told the AFP news agency.
Aza Akhvlediani, 72, called the Georgian government “stupid”.
“I know what’s happening in Moscow. They stop every passerby and do whatever they please to them. I think the Georgian government wants the same,” she said.
Politicians in the EU have also expressed concern.
The draft law “goes directly against the Georgian authorities’ declared ambition to receive candidate status for EU membership”, said a statement from EU members Maria Kaljurand and Sven Mikser. “The new law’s purpose, under the guise of promoting transparency, is to stigmatize the work of civil society organizations and media,” the statement added.
In response to the situation, the US urged the Georgian government to show “restraint” and allow peaceful protests, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for “democratic success” in “friendly Georgia”.
The draft law has deepened a rift between Georgian Dream, which has a parliamentary majority, and Zourabichvili, the pro-European president who has moved away from the party since being elected with its support in 2018.
She has pledged to veto the bill if it reaches her desk, although parliament can override her.
Zourabichvili, speaking to CNN, urged authorities to refrain from using force and portrayed Georgia as a victim of aggression by Russia, which she said was determined to maintain influence in the Caucasus region.
“Clearly, Russia is not going to let go very easily but Russia is losing its war in Ukraine,” she said.
Georgia and Ukraine were once part of the Russian-dominated former Soviet Union.
Critics say Georgian Dream is too close to Russia and has taken the country in a more repressive direction.
Georgian society is strongly anti-Moscow following years of conflict over the status of two Russian-backed breakaway regions, which flared into war in 2008.
Georgian Dream chairman Irakli Kobakhidze on Wednesday said the law would help root out those working against the interests of the country and the powerful Georgian Orthodox Church.
He criticised Georgia’s “radical opposition” for stirring up protesters.