Georgia Parliament Advances Controversial 'Foreign Influence' Bill Amid Protests

Georgia's 'foreign influence' bill sparks massive pro-Europe protests, raising concerns over press freedom and EU integration amid Russian influence in the region.

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Mazhar Abbas
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Georgia Parliament Advances Controversial 'Foreign Influence' Bill Amid Protests

Georgia Parliament Advances Controversial 'Foreign Influence' Bill Amid Protests

The Georgian parliament has advanced a controversial 'foreign influence' bill that would require media outlets and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) receiving over 20% of their funding from abroad to register as 'defending the interests of a foreign power'. The move has sparked widespread pro-Europe demonstrations in the capital Tbilisi and drawn criticism from the European Union, which warned that the bill could hinder Georgia's accession process.

Protesters, including students, gathered at Heroes' Square on Wednesday and took an oath to never give up Georgia's freedom and independence, and to protect the country's statehood, language, and unity. They chanted slogans against the 'Russian regime' and in support of the European Union, vowing to continue demonstrating until the ruling party withdraws the bill. Up to 10,000 people gathered outside the parliament to voice their opposition to the proposed legislation.

The bill, modeled on a similar Russian law, is seen by critics as an attempt by the ruling Georgian Dream party to silence critical voices ahead of parliamentary elections in October. Independent media outlets, already facing harassment, are alarmed at the potential existential threat posed by the proposed legislation targeting press freedom inspired by Moscow, which could result in heavy fines and the seizure of equipment and documents.

Why this matters: The controversy surrounding the 'foreign influence' bill reflects the broader tensions between Georgia's European aspirations and the influence of Russia in the region. The EU has granted Georgia candidate status, but Tbilisi must make progress on reforms to judicial and electoral systems, reducing political polarization, improving press freedom, and curtailing the power of oligarchs if it wants to formally launch membership talks.

EU Council President Charles Michel stated that the bill would not bring Georgia "closer to the European Union" and is "the opposite" of what is expected from an EU candidate country. The EU's High Representative and Commissioner have warned that the bill's final adoption would "negatively impact" Georgia's progress towards EU integration. NATO and the U.S. have also expressed concerns about the bill, with the U.S. branding the 'Kremlin-inspired' legislation as an attack on civil society.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze defended the bill, claiming that no valid arguments had been provided by officials criticizing it. However, the ruling Georgian Dream party later said it will abandon or repeal the law when Georgia receives an offer to join the European Union. Party leader Irakli Garibashvili stated that if Georgia's EU membership bid is approved, the law could be easily repealed, revised, or amended.

The protests and the controversy surrounding the 'foreign agents' bill that 20,000 demonstrate against reflect the ongoing tensions between Georgia's European aspirations and Russian expansionism in the region. The EU ambassador to Georgia criticized the reintroduction of the bill, warning that its adoption would make it very difficult for the European Commission to make a positive assessment of Georgia's progress toward EU membership. As the country navigates this complex political landscape, the fate of the controversial legislation and Georgia's European integration efforts hang in the balance.

Key Takeaways

  • Georgia's parliament advances 'foreign influence' bill to regulate media, NGOs.
  • Widespread pro-Europe protests in Tbilisi against the bill, which draws EU criticism.
  • Bill seen as attempt to silence critical voices ahead of elections, threatens press freedom.
  • EU warns bill could hinder Georgia's EU accession process, NATO and US express concerns.
  • Georgian PM defends bill, but ruling party says it will abandon or repeal it if EU bid approved.