Brawl in Georgia parliament over 'foreign influence' bill

The ruling Georgian Dream party announced the proposal earlier this month, reviving a similar bill that was dropped a year ago after mass protests.
This frame grab shows members of Parliament fighting during a plenary session in Tbilisi. (Photo: AFP)
This frame grab shows members of Parliament fighting during a plenary session in Tbilisi. (Photo: AFP)

TBILISI, Georgia (AFP) - Scuffles broke out in Georgia's parliament on Monday over the government's re-introduction of a controversial "foreign influence" bill that critics say mirrors repressive Russian legislation used to silence and intimidate dissidents.

The ruling Georgian Dream party announced the proposal earlier this month, reviving a similar bill that was dropped a year ago after mass protests.

Video from a parliamentary hearing showed an opposition MP punching a ruling party lawmaker who co-sponsored the bill in the head, prompting scuffles and the live feed to be cut.

The scuffle came as dozens of Georgians rallied outside parliament against the proposed law, which they argue undermines Georgia's bid for European Union membership.

Ahead of a rally planned for Monday evening, protesters could be seen unfurling a large European Union flag and shouting: "No to the Russian law!"

"Georgia's society is strong enough not to allow the country to slide into Russian-styled authoritarianism," Saba Gotua, an architect, said.

"We will not let Georgian Dream waste Georgia's historic chance to become an EU member."

Georgia has sought for years to deepen relations with the West but the current ruling party is accused of attempting to reconnect the former Soviet republic with Russia.

 

'Sabotaging European prospects' 

According to the bill, any independent organisation that receives more than 20 percent of funding from abroad is required to register as an "organisation pursuing the interests of a foreign power".

That was a change from last year's proposal, which used the term "agent of foreign influence".

Georgian Dream said it changed the wording after accepting that the initial one had negative connotations.

The term "foreign agent" is rooted in the Soviet past and suggests such people are traitors and enemies of the state.

Last week, around 8,000 people staged a rally in central Tbilisi, following the ruling party's surprise announcement that it planned to pass the bill in May.

Analysts said that the ruling party -- widely suspected of covert cooperation with the Kremlin -- sees Western funding for Georgia's pro-democracy NGOs and independent media as a challenge to its grip on power.

"Georgian Dream makes no secret of the fact that the law is aimed at neutralising Western influence," political analyst Ghia Nodia told AFP.

"The party keeps saying that it steers Georgia towards the EU, but in fact they are sabotaging Georgia's European prospects," which are supported by some 80 percent of population, according to opinion polls.

Georgia's Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze -- known for his anti-Western rhetoric –- has insisted his cabinet is committed to the country's European aspirations.

In an effort to defend the ruling party's cause, he invited ambassadors of the EU countries who have criticised the draft law to live televised debates.

 

Sanctions risk

The European Commission has called on Tbilisi not to pass the legislation, saying it contradicts the democratic reform agenda which Tbilisi is required to pursue to progress on its path towards EU membership.

In December, the EU granted Georgia official candidate status but said Tbilisi would have to reform its judicial and electoral systems, reduce political polarisation, improve press freedom and curtail the power of oligarchs before membership talks are formally launched.

The United States said last week that passing the law would "derail Georgia from its European path."

"We are deeply concerned that, if it is enacted, this draft legislation would harm civil society organizations (and)... impede independent media organizations," US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told journalists.

"Stay tuned," he said when asked on the prospect of the US slapping sanctions on Georgia.

The adoption of the controversial legislation is likely to further deepen divisions in Georgia, whose staunchly pro-Western president Salome Zurabishvili has condemned the bill as damaging democracy.

Traditionally seen as a leader of democratic transformation among ex-Soviet countries, Georgia has in recent years been criticised for perceived democratic backsliding.