Berliner Boersenzeitung - Georgians protest anti-NGO bill as ruling party vows to adopt

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Georgians protest anti-NGO bill as ruling party vows to adopt
Georgians protest anti-NGO bill as ruling party vows to adopt / Photo: Giorgi ARJEVANIDZE - AFP

Georgians protest anti-NGO bill as ruling party vows to adopt

Hundreds of young Georgians crowded outside parliament on Monday ahead of a third straight night of protests against a "foreign influence" bill that has split the Caucasus country and triggered international condemnation.

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A month of tensions over the bill -- dubbed the "Russian law" by its critics for its resemblance to repressive Kremlin legislation -- is approaching a critical point, with the ruling Georgian Dream party pledging Monday to adopt it within 48 hours.

The capital Tbilisi has been gripped by its largest street protests in years since April, when authorities revived the plans a year after a similar wave of rallies forced them to back down.

Georgian students announced a strike on Monday and plan to march down Tbilisi's main Rustaveli Avenue to parliament later in the evening.

Police were out in force on Monday guarding the building.

In the early hours of Monday, riot police were filmed beating a group of protestors -- images that have further angered the demonstrators.

"It will be an answer to the police, which has turned to violence," 21-year-old Luka Chokhonelidze said of Monday's planned protest.

He called the bill, which targets independent NGOs, "shameful".

Opponents say it will sabotage Georgia's hopes of joining the European Union and accuse the ruling party of moving the Black Sea nation closer to Moscow.

The Georgian Dream vowed Monday not to back down and to pass it by the middle of the week.

"The plan is to adopt it in the third reading," Georgian Dream MP Nikoloz Samkharadze told AFP.

He said it would be passed on Tuesday or Wednesday.

- 'Russian law' -

On Monday morning, protesters tried to block Georgian Dream MPs from entering parliament.

They managed to get into the building from the back and pushed the bill through a parliamentary legal committee -- needed before it goes to a vote -- in less than two minutes.

The law requires NGOs and media outlets that receive over 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as an "organisation pursuing the interests of a foreign power".

Russia has used a similar law to stifle dissent, targeting independent NGOs, journalists and political opponents.

Samkharadze rejected the outrage over the law, saying it has "nothing to do with the Russian" version and was much softer.

He also insisted Georgian Dream was committed to European integration.

But protesters, the opposition, the EU and international rights groups have decried the law as undemocratic. Brussels has indicated it is not compatible with membership of the bloc.

Georgian NGOs say they have been targeted by a smear campaign for over a year.

The bill also comes five months before a crucial election, but Samkharadze rejected it was being used to silence critics ahead of the vote, saying "we were going to win anyway."

- 'As long as it takes' -

Outside parliament, the mood was unpredictable, with riot police crowded in one street behind parliament, and protesters appearing defiant.

"We are planning to stay here for as long as it takes," 22-year-old Mariam Karlandadze told AFP.

AFP journalists saw hundreds of riot police lining a street behind parliament, where police had carried detentions at dawn.

Georgia later opened a probe into the abuse of police power after the EU -- which granted Tbilisi candidate status last year -- urged an investigation.

The interior minister said it had arrested 20 people, including a Russian and two Americans, at night.

- Safety worries -

Many of the young Georgians said they were concerned by a forceful police response but would not walk away.

"No one here thinks it will be safe," 26-year-old Ana Mirakove said.

Georgian Dream -- in power since 2012 -- has defended the law as necessary for the country's sovereignty.

Its billionaire backer Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia, has accused NGOs of plotting a revolution and being foreign puppets.

He has been accused of leaning towards Moscow and does not publicly condemn the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine.

Many protesters see the bill as a symbol of their government's wider drift towards Moscow.

Some have worn Ukrainian flags at the rallies and urge Tbilisi to more vocal about supporting Kyiv.

Lawmaker Samkharadze rejected that criticism.

"We are an occupied country... Russian troops are stationed 30 kilometres from here," he said, adding that he stands by Ukraine.

Asked why Ivanishvili had not condemned the invasion, he said the billionaire was "not in politics" when the Kremlin ordered troops into Ukraine in February 2022.

(H.Schneide--BBZ)