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Georgian parliament overrides presidential veto of the divisive foreign influence bill

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TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — The Georgian parliament on Tuesday overrode a presidential veto of the “foreign agents” bill that has prompted weeks of massive protests by critics who say it will restrict media freedom and obstruct Georgia’s chances of joining the European Union.

The legislature, controlled by the ruling Georgian Dream party, dismissed the veto of President Salome Zourabichvili, an independent. The president now has five days to endorse the bill. If she doesn’t do so, the parliament speaker will sign it into law.

The bill that was approved by the parliament earlier this 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 the bill on May 18. She has accused 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 veto was rejected by an 84-4 vote in a contentious parliament session, during which a Georgian Dream deputy doused the leader of an opposition party with water while he spoke from the rostrum.

Opponents of the bill thronged outside the parliament building and some shouted “Slaves!” as the vote was announced. The crowd swelled in the evening and a lengthy procession of protesters marched past Georgian Dream headquarters.

“We have realized that our government is ready to throw this country off a cliff. The feeling, when I talk to my friends and people here, is that in the 21st century, our country is once again going under Soviet occupation,” said demonstrator Giorgi Natroshvili

The government says the bill 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 argue that the bill’s true goal is to stigmatize them and restrict debate ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for October.

Opponents denounce 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, however, contended the law will aid that integration.

“The law on transparency will create better grounds for ensuring the membership of Georgia in the EU,” he told a news conference after the vote, adding that the law would strengthen Georgia’s sovereignty.

But opposition parliament member Khatia Dekanoidze said: “Now we have an absolutely new reality … Probably, the window for integration into European Union will be closed.”

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. Demonstrators scuffled with police, who used tear gas and water cannons to disperse them.

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

Last week, 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 noted that “it remains our hope that Georgia’s leaders will reconsider the draft law and take steps to move forward with their nation’s democratic and Euro-Atlantic aspirations.”

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.

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 it vehemently denies. Georgian Dream was founded by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a former prime minister and billionaire who made his fortune in Russia.

Zuka Elbakidze, a student who was among protesters rallying in Tbilisi ahead of Tuesday’s vote, said “this day will determine the fate of our country,” adding that “we are making a choice between Europe and Russia, and all the people gathered here, except the policemen, want Europe and the West.”

“We are physically witnessing, literally witnessing, how Georgian citizens, how members of the Georgian Parliament are selling out our country,” said another protester, Mariam Geguchadze.

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.

By SOPHIKO MEGRELIDZE
Associated Press

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