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Protestors wave EU and Georgian national flags as they gather outside the parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Monday, April 15, to protest against the "the Russian law" similar to a law that Russia uses to stigmatize independent news media and organizations seen as being at odds with the Kremlin. (Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP via CNN Newsource)

Georgia presses on with Putin-style bill

April 18, 2024

By Christian Edwards and Niamh Kennedy, CNN

(CNN) — Georgia’s government is attempting to force through a controversial “foreign agent” law, despite international condemnation and huge protests from its citizens.

The bill is seen as a test of whether the nation, a former Soviet state, will forge closer ties with Europe and the United States, or remain within Russia’s orbit.

Critics of the law say is it is a Kremlin-inspired effort to undermine democracy which will damage Georgia’s bid to join the European Union.

Thousands of people demonstrated outside the country’s parliament in the capital Tbilisi on Wednesday after the government passed the draft bill on its first reading – the first of three hurdles it will have to clear before becoming law.

The ruling Georgian Dream party first tried to pass the bill 13 months ago, but was forced into an embarrassing climbdown following a week of intense protests. But, after reintroducing the legislation earlier this month, many fear the government will this time be determined to see it through, despite a growing outcry.

The law, called “On the Transparency of Foreign Influence,” has been likened by opponents to a measure introduced by President Vladimir Putin to stifle criticism in Russia. It would require organizations in the South Caucasus country receiving more than 20% of their funding from overseas to register as “foreign agents” or face large fines.

“It is a Russian law. It is an exact duplicate of the Putin law that was adopted a few years ago and then complemented in order to crush civil society,” Salome Zourabichvili, Georgia’s president and a longstanding opponent of Georgian Dream, told CNN.

Zourabichvili suggested that the law is intended to derail the country’s bid to join the European Union, after it was granted candidate status in December.

“Russia now is starting its hybrid strategy, it’s reinvigorating it, and it’s trying to stop us on that road – helped, obviously, by the authorities today,” she said.

Zourabichvili intends to veto the law, but conceded that her powers are mostly symbolic. Her veto could be overridden by the government’s parliamentary majority.

The Kremlin has claimed that the law was being used to “provoke anti-Russian sentiments,” adding that protests against it were being stirred by “outside” influences.

After the bill passed its first reading, the EU warned its “final adoption would negatively impact Georgia’s progress” on its path to membership.

Nearly 80% of Georgians support European integration, according to a poll conducted in December by theNational Democratic Institute.

“I hope that we will show the power of free people, that we will not give up, and I hope that it will make them decide to take back this unacceptable legislation,” Giorgi Bekurashvili, a young demonstrator, told CNN Monday.

Every night this week so far, thousands of Georgians have flooded the streets to oppose the bill, with many waving EU flags and chanting “Russian slaves” at their lawmakers. Video on social media from Tuesday night showed a brutal police response, as officers hunted down individual protesters, beating some and arresting others.

Many Georgians retain a deep hostility towards Russia, which invaded Georgia in 2008 and today occupies about 20% of its internationally recognized territories – about the same proportion it occupies in Ukraine.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, thousands of Russians – especially men of service age – have fled to Georgia to avoid conscription.

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