Concern is growing that the mountainous Caucasus republic, which aspires to join the EU and NATO, is taking an authoritarian turn
Tbilisi (AFP) - Georgian police fired water cannon and tear gas at thousands of protesters Wednesday, ordering them to disperse as they rallied against a planned “foreign agent” law reminiscent of Russian legislation used to silence critics.
Concern is growing that the mountainous Caucasus republic, which aspires to join the EU and NATO, is taking an authoritarian turn and being bent to the ruling party’s will.
Massive crowds gathered in front of the parliament building in central Tbilisi, holding EU and Georgian flags, and chanting “no to the Russian law”, an AFP correspondent saw.
The protesters are demanding authorities drop the bill on “transparency of foreign funding,” which critics say mirrors a law used in Russia to force media and dissenting groups to shut down.
Elene Ksovreli, 16, said Georgians did not want to see their future threatened.
“We will not allow them to make Russia define our future,” she told AFP. “We, young people, are here to protect our everything.”
Another demonstrator, 72-year-old Aza Akhvlediani, called the country’s government “stupid”.
“I know what’s happening in Moscow. They stop every passerby and do whatever they please to them. I think the Georgian government wants the same,” she said.
Earlier Wednesday, protesters marched down Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare, with one banner reading “Women against total control” in a nod to International Women’s Day.
- ‘Big moment’ -
“We want Europe! We want the West,” Tamuna Kirkhvadze, a 37-year-old economist, told AFP. “We want a bright future for our children and us.”
In response to the unfurling situation, Washington urged the government to show “restraint” and allow peaceful protests, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for “democratic success” in “friendly Georgia”.
Protesters were also out Tuesday after ruling party lawmakers approved the draft law on “foreign agents” in its first reading.
Clashes ensued with police using tear gas and water cannon against the demonstrators.
Police said more than 70 demonstrators had been detained and 50 police officers injured during the protests Tuesday.
Tom de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, said that both the bill and crackdown represented a serious challenge in the politically turbulent country.
“It’s a big moment for Georgia, still a democracy, but definitely a struggling one,” he said on Twitter.
Earlier Wednesday, protesters marched down Tbilisi's main thoroughfare
In Russia, the Kremlin has extensively used the “foreign agent” label against opponents, journalists and human rights activists accused of leading foreign-funded political activities.
Georgian authorities have faced mounting international criticism over a perceived backsliding on democracy, seriously damaging Tbilisi’s ties with Brussels.
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has defended his “balanced” policy as aimed at ensuring “peace and stability”.
Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war in 2008.
Georgian President Salome Zourabishvili has expressed support for the demonstrators and has vowed to veto the legislation.
- ‘Dark day’ -
“Today is a dark day for Georgia’s democracy,” the US embassy in Georgia said after the initial reading of the bill.
According to the ministry, 76 people had been arrested for minor hooliganism and disobeying law enforcement following Tuesday’s clashes.
One more person was held for attacking the police, the ministry said.
Georgia applied for EU membership together with Ukraine and Moldova days after Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year.
In June, EU leaders granted formal candidate status to Kyiv and Chisinau but said Tbilisi must implement a number of reforms first.
Plans to join NATO and the EU are enshrined in Georgia’s constitution and are supported by at least 80 percent of the population, according to opinion polls.
Georgia’s treatment of jailed ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili, whose health has drastically deteriorated in prison, has also drawn international condemnation.
Late last month, European Union member states issued a formal diplomatic warning to Georgia’s leaders over Saakashvili’s health.