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Georgian parliament re-adopts foreign influence law vetoed by president

Georgian parliament re-adopts foreign influence law vetoed by president
Jun 3, 2024 11:19 AM

The speaker of Georgia’s parliament gave the final endorsement on Monday to a divisive “foreign agents” bill that has prompted weeks of protests by critics who say it will restrict media freedom and jeopardize Georgia’s chances of joining the European Union.

Shalva Papuashvili signed the bill into law after the legislature, controlled by the ruling Georgian Dream party, dismissed the veto of President Salome Zourabichvili.

The bill, which was approved by Parliament last month, requires media, nongovernmental organizations, and other nonprofit groups to register as “pursuing the interests of a foreign power” if they receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad.

Zourabichvili, who is increasingly at odds with the governing party, vetoed it, accusing the governing party of jeopardizing the country’s future and “hindering the path toward becoming a full member of the free and democratic world.”

The government argues that the law is needed to stem what it deems to be harmful foreign actors trying to destabilize the South Caucasus nation of 3.7 million, but many Georgian journalists and activists say that the bill’s true goal is to stigmatize them and restrict debate ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for October.

Georgian parliament re-adopts foreign influence law vetoed by president

Opponents have denounced the legislation as “the Russian law” because it resembles measures pushed through by the Kremlin to crack down on independent news media, nonprofits, and activists. Critics say the measure may have been driven by Moscow to thwart Georgia’s chances of further integrating with the West.

Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze on Monday again dismissed the criticism as “unnecessary emotions that had only an artificial basis.”

“Now the law has already come into force and we all have to act pragmatically, with a cool mind, and put aside unnecessary emotions,” he said.

The bill is nearly identical to one that the ruling party was pressured to withdraw last year after massive street protests. Renewed demonstrations again gripped Georgia as the bill made its way through parliament this time. Demonstrators scuffled with police, who used tear gas and water cannons to disperse them.

Papuashvili reaffirmed after signing the bill that its main purpose is to “increase the resistance of the political, economic and social systems of Georgia to external interference.” “If non-governmental organizations and mass media want to participate in the decision-making process and influence the life of the Georgian people with funding from foreign governments, they must meet the minimum standard of transparency — the public must know who is behind each actor,” he said.

The European Union’s foreign policy arm has said that the adoption of the law “negatively impacts Georgia’s progress on the EU path.”

The EU offered Georgia candidate status last December, while making it clear that Tbilisi needs to implement key policy recommendations for its membership bid to progress.

Following parliamentary approval of the bill last month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that travel sanctions would be imposed on Georgian officials “who are responsible for or complicit in undermining democracy in Georgia.” He voiced hope that the Georgian government will reverse course and “take steps to move forward with their nation’s democratic and Euro-Atlantic aspirations.”

Georgian parliament re-adopts foreign influence law vetoed by president

The opposition United National Movement has described the bill as part of efforts by Georgian Dream to drag the country into Russia’s sphere of influence – claims the ruling party angrily rejects. Georgian Dream was founded by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a former prime minister and billionaire who made his fortune in Russia.

Russia-Georgia relations have often been rocky since Georgia became independent after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 2008, Russia fought a brief war with Georgia, which had made a botched attempt to regain control over the breakaway province of South Ossetia. Moscow then recognized South Ossetia and another separatist province, Abkhazia, as independent states and strengthened its military presence there. Most of the world considers both regions to be parts of Georgia.

Tbilisi cut diplomatic ties with Moscow, and the regions’ status remains a key irritant even as Russia-Georgia relations have improved in recent years.

Last Updated:  Jun 5, 2024 6:25 PM