May 23, 2024

The EU, which has warned bill threatens Georgia’s accession, calls on Tbilisi to refrain from violence suppression.

The European Union has condemned a violent police crackdown on large protests in Georgia opposing government efforts to push through a “foreign influence bill”.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell led the condemnation on Wednesday after reports that police arrested dozens of people and injured many overnight. Huge demonstrations have been held in recent days calling for the bill, which it is feared would stifle dissent and derail the country’s bid to join the EU, to be ditched.

Security forces used water cannon, tear gas and stun grenades as thousands rallied against the bill outside parliament in Tblisi on Tuesday night. Overall, 63 protesters were arrested.

Six police officers were injured, Deputy Interior Minister Aleksandre Darakhvelidze said, while reports suggested many demonstrators were injured.

“Georgia is an EU candidate country, I call on its authorities to ensure the right to peaceful assembly. Use of force to suppress it is unacceptable,” Borrell said in a post on X.

Georgia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs said police used “legitimate force” only after the protest had “turned violent and demonstrators entered in a verbal and physical confrontation with law enforcement”.

The protests, called the “March for Europe” have run into a third week as the ruling Georgian Dream party tries to push the bill through parliament.

An effort last year to approve the legislation, which is condemned by critics as copying draconian legislation in Russia, was scuppered after mass rallies.

The EU approved Georgia’s candidate status in December but has suggested the bill could derail Tbilisi’s hopes of European integration if passed.

The bill would require media and non-commercial organisations getting more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as “pursuing the interests of a foreign power”.

Georgians march 'for Europe', protest controversial bill
Demonstrators rally in Tbilisi on April 28, 2024. against the ‘foreign influence bill’, which Brussels warns would undermine Georgia’s EU aspirations [Giorgi Arjevanidze/AFP]

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Tussles

Lawmakers had abandoned the second reading of the bill on Tuesday. As the debate resumed on Wednesday, MPs tussled physically once more.

Punches were thrown last month in the hallways of parliament during discussions about the bill.

One pro-government deputy was seen on Georgian television on Wednesday throwing a book at opposition legislators, some of whom showed signs of having been injured the previous evening.

Levan Khabeishvili, leader of the United National Movement party, Georgia’s largest opposition bloc, turned up in parliament with a swollen face, missing teeth and a bandage across his nose.

Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire founder of the ruling party and former prime minister, asserts that the bill would bolster national sovereignty amid what he said were Western attempts to lead Georgia into a confrontation with Russia.

Giorgi Vashadze, an opposition politician, said Georgians have the right to peacefully protest and the behaviour of the ruling party and law enforcement agencies is “completely illegal”.

The bill needs to pass three votes in parliament. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for October.

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