Georgia parliament overrides president to pass Kremlin-style ‘foreign agents’ bill, defying Western pressure

Georgia’s parliament has voted to override the presidential veto of a Russian-inspired “foreign agent” law, defying fierce protests at home and criticism abroad.

Tuesday’s vote to bypass the objection of Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, whose powers are mostly ceremonial, was widely expected and clears the way for the parliament’s speaker to sign the bill into law.

The ruling Georgian Dream party has for weeks tried to force through the “foreign agent” law, likened by critics to a measure introduced in Russia to stifle dissent.

The Georgian law, which has passed each of its three rounds of voting in parliament, would require organizations in the former Soviet country that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents” or face crippling fines.

Georgian Dream argues the law is necessary to promote transparency and resist “pseudo-liberal values” fomented by foreigners, but its critics have said it could derail the country’s bid to join the European Union and tip it into the Kremlin’s orbit.

“The European Union deeply regrets that the Georgian Parliament decided to override the President’s veto,” the bloc said Tuesday in a statement, saying the law “goes against EU core principles and values.”

The United States last week sanctioned Georgia, implementing a new visa restriction policy in response to the repressive law and crackdowns on protests.

“As a longtime supporter of Georgia and it’s Euro-Atlantic integration, I’m deeply concerned and disappointed by the passage of the foreign agents bill and the rapid political shift taking place in the country, which is at odds with the wishes of the Georgian people,” US Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, said in a statement introducing the legislation.

Protesters stare down riot police outside the Georgian Parliament. - Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters
Protesters stare down riot police outside the Georgian Parliament. - Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters

Responding to Tuesday’s vote, Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said it marked “a very sad day” for Georgia and the rest of Europe.

“The passing of this law effectively puts Georgia’s accession to the EU on hold, with no benefit for anybody,” he said.

Natalie Sabanadze, Georgia’s former ambassador to the EU, described the government’s attempt to pass the law – just months before scheduled parliamentary elections – as a “coup d’etat.”

“The Georgian government is clearly siding with the Putinist, anti-liberal forces of the world” Sabanadze told CNN. “It’s turning into an instrument in the hands of Russia. I cannot speculate. I have no idea whether they’re working on Russia’s instructions, but they certainly are fulfilling their interests.”

Tuesday’s vote nearly completes a process Georgia’s government began 14 months ago. Georgian Dream tried to pass the same law last year, but was forced into an embarrassing climbdown after a week of intense protests, which saw citizens waving EU flags buffeted back by water canons.

In a move widely seen as an effort to reward Georgia’s citizens – of whom about 80% support joining the bloc – the EU granted it candidate status in December.

But the government reintroduced the same bill in March and this time refused to cave to public pressure, despite a month of renewed protests.

CNN’s Xiaofei Xu contributed reporting.

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