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Tens of thousands of people gathered outside the Georgian parliament on Wednesday in the second day of protests in capital city Tbilisi over a draft “foreign agents” bill that critics fear could drive a wedge between the Caucasian nation and Europe.
Protesters could be seen waving the flag of the European Union – which Georgia applied to join last year – and those of the United States and Ukraine, as well as the Georgian flag. Social media videos also showed some protesters throwing stones at the building’s windows and attempting to break a protective barrier, with police deploying water cannon and tear gas.
The controversial bill would require organizations receiving 20 percent or more of their annual income from abroad to register as “foreign agents” or face heavy fines – a proposal that rights experts warn will pose a chilling effect to civil society in the country and damage its democracy.
The ruling Georgian Dream party has said that the bill is modeled on US legislation, Reuters reports. But critics say it evokes a controversial law in neighboring Russia that forms the basis of draconian restrictions and requirements on organizations and individuals with foreign ties.
The bill passed a first reading on Tuesday in the legislature and faces several further steps before becoming law. Its ultimate passage is considered likely, however, as the bill has strong support among lawmakers.
In a statement on Wednesday, the Georgian Interior Ministry called “on the protesters, organizers and political leaders not to go beyond the limits defined by the law on freedom of assembly and expression.”
At least 76 people have been arrested in connection to Tuesday’s protests.
Georgia has long played a delicate balancing act between citizens’ pro-European sentiment and the geopolitical aims of its powerful neighbor, Russia.
But an EU statement Tuesday warned that the law would be “incompatible with EU values and standards” and could have “serious repercussions on our relations.”
Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili said she believed that the bill “looks very much like Russian politics.”
“There is no need for this law, it comes from nowhere. Nobody has asked for it,” Zourabichvili told CNN’s Isa Soares Wednesday.
Zourabichvili has vowed to veto the bill. But supreme executive power lies with the government headed by Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili.
Georgia applied for EU membership in March 2022. Though it was not granted candidacy status, the European Council has expressed readiness to grant that status if Georgia implements certain reforms.
“For Georgia, there has been certain conditions that are very much linked to the democratic credentials for democratic reforms,” European Union Vice Commissioner Maro? ?ef?ovi? told CNN.
The bloc’s member states have since “had very intense discussions” about Georgia’s candidacy, ?ef?ovi? said, speaking to CNN’s Richard Quest on Wednesday.
The US has said it is “deeply troubled” by the bill, with State Department spokesman Ned Price on Wednesday describing it as “Kremlin-inspired.”
“Parliament’s advancing of these Kremlin-inspired draft laws is incompatible with the people of Georgia’s clear desire for European integration and its democratic development,” Price said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meanwhile addressed Georgian protesters directly, thanking them on Wednesday for raising his country’s flag during the demonstrations and wishing them “democratic success.”
“I want to thank everyone who has been holding Ukrainian flags in the squares and streets of Georgia these days,” Zelensky said.
“We want to be in the European Union and we will be. We want Georgia to be in the European Union, and I am sure it will be,” Zelensky added later. “We want Moldova to be in the European Union, and I am sure it will be. All free peoples of Europe deserve this.”