30,000 rally in Georgia amid new criticism of 'foreign influence' law

The EU denounced the 'intimidation, threats and physical assaults' against those opposing the law (Giorgi ARJEVANIDZE)
The EU denounced the 'intimidation, threats and physical assaults' against those opposing the law (Giorgi ARJEVANIDZE)

Some 30,000 Georgians took to the streets Wednesday in the latest round of a weeks-long mass protest against a "foreign influence" law whose adoption by parliament has prompted a blizzard of international condemnation.

Ruling Georgian Dream party lawmakers voted through the legislation Tuesday in defiance of protesters, who are worried the ex-Soviet republic is shifting away from a pro-Western course back toward Russia.

The move has sparked a wave of protests unprecedented in the recent history of the Caucasus Black Sea nation, where according to opinion polls more than 80 percent of the population wants to join the European Union and NATO, and is staunchly anti-Kremlin.

On Wednesday evening, some 30,000 demonstrators gathered outside Georgian parliament, according to an AFP reporter on the scene.

Visiting foreign ministers of Estonia, Iceland, and Lithuania joined the march towards the protest venue, before addressing the crowd in a show of solidarity with demonstrators.

"We are here supporting Georgian people's aspirations to be part of the European Union and NATO," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told AFP.

"We are standing with them, they are not alone, their worries are heard, they are supported", he said.

Georgia's national anthem and EU's Ode to Joy were performed at the rally.

Earlier on Wednesday, thousands of demonstrators blocked a major road intersection in Tbilisi, paralysing traffic in the capital's central districts.

"We've been hitting the streets day in and day out for over a month now, and we aren't backing down until this Russian law gets axed," 19-year-old student Anuka Liparteliani told AFP.

"And then in autumn, we'll kick out this pro-Russian government," she added, referring to parliamentary elections scheduled for October.

Protests against the law -- which Brussels has warned is incompatible with Georgia's bid for EU membership -- were also held in the western Georgian cities of Batumi, Kutaisi and Tsalenjikha.

- 'Change course' -

The adoption of the law has sparked a flurry of Western criticism.

The move "negatively impacts Georgia's progress on the EU path," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a joint statement with the European Commission.

"We urge the Georgian authorities to withdraw the law."

The EU statement reiterated condemnation for "intimidation, threats and physical assaults on civil society representatives, political leaders and journalists" during demonstrations against the law.

A spokeswoman for the NATO military alliance said the law was a "step in the wrong direction... away from European and Euro-Atlantic integration".

"We urge Georgia to change course and respect the right to peaceful protest," said NATO spokeswoman Farah Dakhlallah.

UN human rights chief Volker Turk said he "deeply regrets" the adoption of the law.

"Authorities and lawmakers have chosen to disregard the many warnings by human rights defenders and civil society organisations," Turk said in a statement.

"The impacts on the rights to freedom of expression and association in Georgia unfortunately now risk being significant."

The United States on Tuesday warned the "Kremlin-style" law would hit Washington's ties with Georgia if it was not withdrawn.

- Presidential veto -

The foreign ministers of Estonia, Iceland, Latvia and Lithuania on Wednesday travelled to Georgia to express concerns over the law.

At a press conference alongside Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili, Landsbergis said that "cosmetic changes" would not make the law compatible with European standards.

Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze has signalled his party's readiness to consider Zurabishvili's proposed amendments to the law, should she lay them out in her veto document.

But Zurabishvili -- at loggerheads with the ruling party -- ruled out the prospect of entering "false, artificial, misleading negotiations" with Georgian Dream.

"No one should think that Georgia's president can be used for saving the face of this government," she told the news conference.

The bill requires NGOs and media outlets that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as bodies "pursuing the interests of a foreign power".

Critics say it mirrors Russian legislation used to silence dissent, in a sign of the ex-Soviet republic's drift closer to Russia's orbit in recent years.

In addition to the protests outside, scuffles have broken out inside parliament between opposition lawmakers and members of Georgian Dream.

Georgian Dream has sought to depict the protesters as mobs. It insists it is committed to joining the EU, and portrays the bill as aimed at increasing the transparency of NGO funding.