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Thousands rally in Georgia as Parliament advances ‘foreign influence’ bill

Police in the capital, Tbilisi, fired tear gas and stun grenades to clear protesters opposed to the draft legislation.

Georgia’s Parliament moved a step closer to passing a bill that critics fear will stifle media freedom and endanger the country’s European Union membership bid, as police used water cannon, tear gas and pepper spray against tens of thousands of people who took to the streets in protest.

On Wednesday, Parliament approved the second reading of the “foreign influence” bill that has been criticised as mirroring a draconian Russian law, with lawmakers voting 83 to 23 to adopt the measure.

Dozens of people were arrested the night before and mass rallies have continued daily in the capital, Tbilisi.

The law would require media and noncommercial organisations to register as “pursuing the interests of a foreign power” if they receive more than 20 percent of funding from abroad. The governing Georgian Dream party withdrew a similar proposal last year following massive protests.

The bill will go through a third and final vote in Parliament. The governing party has said it wants to sign it into law by mid-May.

Relations between Georgia and Russia have been complicated and turbulent since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. The two countries fought a short war in 2008 that ended with Georgia losing control of two Russia-friendly separatist regions.

In the aftermath, Georgia severed diplomatic ties with Russia, and the issue of the regions’ status remains a key irritant, even as relations have somewhat improved.

Georgia joined international resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but it also became a main destination for Russians fleeing military mobilisation and political crackdowns.

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, increasingly at odds with the governing party, has criticised the bill and has said she would veto it if Parliament passed it. However, the governing party can overrule the veto and ask the parliamentary speaker to sign the bill into law.

The EU approved Georgia’s candidate status in December but has suggested the bill could derail its hopes of European integration if passed.

Source: Al Jazeera