Georgia parliament overrides president’s veto of controversial ‘foreign agents’ law

The West has hit out at the law as Kremlin-inspired and authoritarian, with protesters calling for it to be dropped

Sophiko Megrelidze
Tuesday 28 May 2024 19:03 BST
People hold smartphones with flashlights as they protest the ‘foreign influence’ law outside the parliament building in Tbilisi
People hold smartphones with flashlights as they protest the ‘foreign influence’ law outside the parliament building in Tbilisi (AFP via Getty Images)

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The Georgian parliament has overridden a presidential veto of the "foreign agents" Bill that has prompted weeks of massive protests and sharp criticism from the West which says the legislation is Kremlin-inspired.

The legislature, controlled by the ruling Georgian Dream party, voted to ignore the objections of Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, who is increasingly at odds with the governing party.

The president now has five days to endorse the bill. If she doesn't do so, the parliament speaker will sign it into law.

The dispute about the draft law has come to be seen as a key test of whether Georgia, for three decades among the most pro-Western of the Soviet Union's successor states, would maintain its Western orientation, or pivot instead to Russia.

The bill would require organisations receiving more than 20 per cent of their funding from overseas to register as "agents of foreign influence", while also introducing punitive fines for violations, as well as onerous disclosure requirements.

If she does not do so, the parliament speaker will sign it into law.

Ms Zourabichvili has accused the governing party of jeopardising the country's future and "hindering the path toward becoming a full member of the free and democratic world".

The veto was rejected by an 84-4 vote in a contentious parliament session, during which a Georgian Dream deputy doused the leader of an opposition party with water while he spoke from the rostrum.

Protesters outside parliament before the vote
Protesters outside parliament before the vote (AFP via Getty Images)

Opponents of the Bill thronged outside the parliament building and some shouted "Slaves!" as the vote was announced.

The government says the Bill is needed to stem what it deems to be harmful foreign actors trying to destabilise the South Caucasus nation of 3.7 million, but many Georgian journalists and activists argue that the Bill's true goal is to stigmatise them and restrict debate ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for October.

Opponents denounce the legislation as "the Russian law" because it resembles measures pushed through by the Kremlin to crack down on independent news media, non-profits and activists.

Critics say the measure may have been driven by Moscow to thwart Georgia's chances of further integrating with the West. The Bill is nearly identical to one that the ruling party was pressured to withdraw last year after massive street protests.

Renewed demonstrations again gripped Georgia as the Bill made its way through parliament.

Demonstrators scuffled with police, who used tear gas and water cannons to disperse them.

The European Union's foreign policy arm has said that adoption of the law "negatively impacts Georgia's progress on the EU path".

Last week, US secretary of state Antony Blinken announced that travel sanctions would be imposed on Georgian officials "who are responsible for or complicit in undermining democracy in Georgia". He noted that "it remains our hope that Georgia's leaders will reconsider the draft law and take steps to move forward with their nation's democratic and Euro-Atlantic aspirations".

The EU offered Georgia candidate status last December, while making it clear that Tbilisi needs to implement key policy recommendations for its membership bid to progress.

The opposition United National Movement has described the Bill as part of efforts by Georgian Dream to drag the country into Russia's sphere of influence - claims it vehemently denies.

Georgian Dream was founded by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a former prime minister and billionaire who made his fortune in Russia.

Zuka Elbakidze, a student who was among protesters rallying in Tbilisi ahead of Tuesday's vote, said: "This day will determine the fate of our country", adding that "we are making a choice between Europe and Russia, and all the people gathered here, except the policemen, want Europe and the West".

"We are physically witnessing, literally witnessing, how Georgian citizens, how members of the Georgian parliament are selling out our country," said another protester, Mariam Geguchadze.

Russia-Georgia relations have often been rocky since Georgia became independent after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 2008, Russia fought a brief war with Georgia, which had made a botched attempt to regain control over the breakaway province of South Ossetia.

Moscow then recognised South Ossetia and another separatist province, Abkhazia, as independent states and strengthened its military presence there. Most of the world considers both regions to be parts of Georgia.

Tbilisi cut diplomatic ties with Moscow, and the regions' status has remained a key irritant even as Russia-Georgia relations have improved in recent years.

Associated Press

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