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Protests in Georgia over country's 'foreign influence' bill


A series of protests has rocked the small former Soviet Republic of Georgia in recent weeks. At issue, a controversial draft bill winding its way through parliament that targets the country's civil society and that critics say reflects Kremlin influence. From the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, NPR's Charles Maynes reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Night after night, tens of thousands of Georgians have taken to the streets of Tbilisi to protest new legislation in parliament that they argue will determine the country's future. At stake is whether Georgia strengthens its ties to Europe or falls back under Russian influence, says university student Mariam Esaiashvili.

MARIAM ESAIASHVILI: I want to be a part of the Europe, and I want freedom, as my other friends do. But this law just gets us more far from that mission.

MAYNES: Introduced by the ruling Georgia Dream Party, the legislation would force non-governmental organizations and independent media that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as foreign agents. More critically, opponents say the bill echoes a Russian law the Kremlin has used to crush its own civil society. That's prompted warnings from Western officials the legislation's passage could derail Georgia's current bids to join Western clubs like the European Union and NATO, effectively pushing Georgia back into Moscow's orbit.

MAKA BOTCHORISHVILI: As Georgian politician and Georgian citizen, it is very much insulting when somebody puts Georgia and Russia on the same level.

MAYNES: Maka Botchorishvili is a Georgia Dream lawmaker who heads the parliament's committee on EU integration. She rejects charges that the law is Russian inspired, noting Russia remains Georgia's number one geopolitical foe after the Kremlin occupied parts of Georgian territory following a brief war in 2008. Botchorishvili says the new law is about transparency, keeping dark money and bad actors out of Georgian politics and nothing more.

BOTCHORISHVILI: I mean, knowing Georgian society and knowing our modern history, I would say that would be impossible for any government to use such a law against civil society.


BIDZINA IVANISHVILI: (Non-English language spoken).


MAYNES: Yet at a rally in favor of legislation last week, Georgia Dream's founder and the country's richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, made a rare public speech in which he accused Western-backed NGOs of seeking to overthrow the government and provoke Georgia into another conflict with Russia, even as he guaranteed his country's EU membership by the end of the decade.

Beka Kobakhidze, a professor at Ilia State University, who's been speaking out against the law, accuses Ivanishvili of undermining the European future the vast majority of Georgians want, while parroting policies that please Moscow.

BEKA KOBAKHIDZE: Even his supporters are supporters of European Union membership. And he must mention that, yeah, we also want to become part of the European Union, while doing everything to sabotage this process.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Shouting in non-English language).

MAYNES: That includes employing increasingly heavy-handed tactics against demonstrators. This week saw government riot troops use stun grenades, tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets against protesters - actions that have been criticized by top EU officials.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in non-English language).

MAYNES: Back at the pro-government rally, the crowd breaks out into one of Georgia's most beloved folk songs, "Chakrulo." It's an ancient tale about heading off to battle to fight armies in faraway lands. Yet with Georgian society today divided and angry over a foreign agent law expected to pass later this month, the danger is the next battle may not be far away, but right at home. Charles Maynes, NPR News, Tbilisi, Georgia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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