Thousands rally in Georgia as 'foreign influence' bill advances

Thousands have gathered to protest the law again in the capital Tbilisi (VANO SHLAMOV)
Thousands have gathered to protest the law again in the capital Tbilisi (VANO SHLAMOV)

Thousands of Georgians protested again Wednesday, as parliament advanced a controversial "foreign influence" bill, despite weeks of demonstrations and warnings from Brussels that it would damage Tbilisi's European aspirations.

The EU also condemned police action the previous night, when they fired tear gas and rubber bullets at thousands of protesters against the measure.

Lawmakers voted 83 to 23 to adopt the bill in a second reading. The ruling Georgian Dream party has said it wants to sign it into law by mid-May, arguing it only serves to boost transparency of NGOs' foreign funding.

But its critics say the proposed law resembles a repressive Russian law used to silence dissent.

Waving Georgian and EU flags, thousands of demonstrators once again gathered outside parliament, Wednesday evening, trying to block the building's entrances, said an AFP reporter.

The turmoil came ahead of parliamentary elections in October, seen as a key test of democracy in the EU-aspirant Black Sea nation.

President Salome Zurabishvili -- who is at loggerheads with the ruling party -- is expected to veto the measure, but the party has enough votes to override that measure.

If adopted, the law would require that any independent NGO and media organisation receiving more than 20 percent of its funding from abroad to register as an "organisation pursuing the interests of a foreign power".

Last year, mass street protests forced Georgian Dream to drop plans for similar measures.

Georgia has sought for years to deepen relations with the West, but Georgian Dream has been accused of attempting to steer the former Soviet republic closer to Russia.

EU chief Charles Michel has said the bill "is not consistent with Georgia's bid for EU membership" and that it "will bring Georgia further away from the EU and not closer."

In December, the EU granted Georgia official candidate status but said Tbilisi would have to reform its judicial and electoral systems, reduce political polarisation, improve press freedom and curtail the power of oligarchs before membership talks are formally launched.