In Georgia in the South Caucasus, thousands of pro-European demonstrators have again demonstrated against a proposed law on “foreign agents”, which they believe is intended to intimidate media and non-governmental organizations critical of the government. A large crowd gathered in front of the parliament building in the capital Tbilisi on Wednesday for the second evening in a row, the media reported.
Security forces used violence against demonstrators again. According to eyewitness reports, the protesters surrounded the parliament of the South Caucasus republic; some also tried to enter the building. As a result, the strong police forces used tear gas and water cannons, as the evening before, as pictures from Russian and Georgian news agencies and television stations showed.
Some demonstrators waved Georgian and Ukrainian flags, as well as the EU blue star flag. Georgians also sang the Ukrainian anthem in solidarity with Ukraine attacked by Russia. During the later street battles, the police pushed the remaining demonstrators away, who in turn threw stones and bottles. Observers estimated the number of demonstrators at 10,000 to 15,000. There are more than on Tuesday evening. According to the newspaper "Georgia Today" there were again several arrests.
The draft law, passed by Parliament in the first reading, stipulates that organizations that receive more than 20 percent of their financial resources from abroad must register as so-called foreign agents. Otherwise they face penalties.
The bill is reminiscent of a law passed in Russia in 2012. The Kremlin has since used this law extensively to repress media, anti-government organizations and other critics.
Thousands of people also gathered in front of Parliament on Tuesday evening to protest against the project. They had faced a large contingent of police officers who later used tear gas and water cannons against the demonstrators.
Authorities announced 66 arrests on Wednesday. They accused the demonstrators of throwing stones and other objects at police officers and later attacking the parliament with Molotov cocktails and firecrackers. Almost 50 police officers were injured. "Civilians" were also injured - but the authorities did not give any figures.
President Zurabishvili supported the protesters. "Today you represent a free Georgia that sees its future in Europe and will not let anyone rob that future," she said during a visit to New York. She announced her veto against the text - but the ruling party Georgian Dream can overturn it with its absolute majority in parliament.
According to US State Department spokesman Ned Price, the "Kremlin-inspired" bill "is not compatible with the clear desire of the Georgian people for European integration and democratic development." Going through the plans would damage Georgia's relationship with its strategic partners and question the country's "Euro-Atlantic future," Price said in Washington on Wednesday (local time).
Human rights activists from Freedom House have expressed alarm at the violence in Tbilisi. "The fundamental right to peaceful assemblies must be protected against Molotov cocktails, tear gas and water cannons," the non-governmental organization demanded on Twitter. She urged the Georgian government to reconsider the controversial bill.
The small former Soviet republic of Georgia is actually aiming to join the EU and NATO. Recently, however, several government measures have fueled fears that the country could turn to Russia under Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili. This speaks of a "balanced" policy that should ensure "peace and stability".
The US Embassy in Georgia on Tuesday, following the passage of the first reading of the "foreign agents" law, said it was "a gloomy day for Georgian democracy". If the government in Tbilisi sticks to the plan, it will damage relations "with its strategic partners".
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also warned that the planned law was “incompatible with the values and norms of the EU. It is "contrary to Georgia's declared goal of joining the European Union". Should it actually be adopted, this could have "serious effects on our relations".
A few days after the start of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, Georgia, along with Ukraine and Moldova, applied for membership of the European Union. In June, EU leaders granted Kiev and Chisinau official candidate status, while demanding a number of reforms from Tbilisi as a condition of that status.
Plans to join NATO and the EU are enshrined in the Georgian constitution. According to surveys, they are supported by at least 80 percent of the population.
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