Protests erupted in Tbilisi on Tuesday after Georgia’s parliament passed the first reading of a controversial draft law that would require some organizations receiving foreign funding to register as “foreign agents.” Rights groups have criticized the law as curtailing basic freedoms in the country.
The court session was broadcast live on the legislature’s website.
“76 votes for, 13 against. The bill was adopted in the first reading,” said Speaker of the Parliament Shalva Papuashvili.
The bill must pass further readings in parliament to become law, but so far appears to have broad support among Georgian lawmakers despite criticism domestically and abroad.
Thousands of protesters could be seen outside the parliament building on Tuesday night, holding not just the Georgian flag but also European Union flags.
Some threw stones and petrol bombs, as security forces responded with tear gas and water cannon. Video posted on social media also showed protesters storming a barricade at the entrance to the parliament building and tearing it down.
There are fears the law could impede the country’s hopes of closer ties with the European Union.
The President of Georgia, Salome Zourabichvili, threw her support behind protestors, in a video message posted on Facebook, saying “the path of European integration must be protected. Those who support this law today, all those who voted for this law today are violating the Constitution. All of them are alienating us from Europe,” she said.
She said she would repeal the law if it crossed her desk. However, the ruling Dream Party has the parliamentary majority to overcome a presidential veto, according to Human Rights Watch.
“I said on day one that I would veto this law, and I will do that,” Zourabichvili said in the video.
Georgia’s Interior Ministry has asked protesters to disperse, warning that “legal measures” would be taken to restore calm.
“The protest action near the parliament building on Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi has become violent. The protesters tried to block one of the entrances to the parliament, and there are facts of violence against the employees of the ministry,” read an Interior Ministry statement.
Protesters’ chants, with insults aimed at both Georgian politicians and Russian President Vladimir Putin, underline fears that the bill follows the model of a controversial law in neighboring Russia that has already imposed draconian restrictions and requirements on organizations and individuals with foreign ties.
President Zourabichvili called it “an unnecessary law that did not come out of nowhere, but was dictated by Moscow,” telling protesters that she was “standing next to you because you are the very people who represent free Georgia today. The Georgia which sees its future in Europe and will not let anyone take this future away from it.”
The Georgian bill has been widely criticized as posing a potential chilling effect for Georgian civil society, and particularly NGOs and news organizations with links to Europe.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have said that the bill would impede rights to freedom of expression and association in the country with onerous financial reporting requirements.
“The ‘foreign agent’ bills seek to marginalize and discredit independent, foreign-funded groups and media that serve the wider public interest in Georgia,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
An EU statement Tuesday warned that the law would be “incompatible with EU values and standards” and could have “serious repercussions on our relations.”
In February, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price also said that “anyone voting for this draft legislation” could also imperil Georgia’s relationship with Europe and the West.
The former Soviet republic has played a balancing act between its citizens’ pro-European sentiment and its regional positioning next to Russia. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in 2011 that had Russia not invaded Georgia in 2008, NATO would have expanded into Georgia.
The invasion only lasted a couple days, but it appeared to have the same pretext Russian President Vladimir Putin used to invade Ukraine in 2014 and last year, writes think tank European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
“In the last few years, and especially over the past 18 months, Georgia’s ruling coalition has made a series of moves that seem designed to distance the country from the West and shift it gradually into Russia’s sphere of influence,” ECFR writes in a report where it attributes much of the drift to the ruling Georgian Dream party.