Photos: Thousands protest in Georgia over contentious ‘foreign agents’ bill

Thousands of Georgians took to the streets in protest and politicians came to blows in parliament as governing party legislators gave the initial go-ahead for debate on a bill on “foreign agents” that has been criticised by Western and domestic critics as Russian inspired.

More than 5,000 demonstrators gathered outside Georgia’s Soviet-built parliament building on Monday in the capital, Tbilisi, demanding the government withdraw the measure which requires organisations that accept funds from abroad to register as foreign agents or face fines.

Critics label the bill “the Russian law”, comparing it with legislation used by the Kremlin to crack down on dissent.

The ruling Georgian Dream party said this month it would reintroduce the bill, 13 months after it was shelved because of mass protests.

Parliament’s legal affairs committee, which is controlled by Georgian Dream and its allies, endorsed the bill, clearing the way for it to be submitted for a first reading on Tuesday.

Protesters chanted “Russians! Russians!” at police cordons securing approaches to the parliament, with water cannon deployed nearby. Some of them rolled out a giant European Union flag outside parliament.

Activists urged the demonstrators to return for Tuesday’s parliamentary sitting.

Footage broadcast on Georgian television showed Mamuka Mdinaradze, leader of Georgian Dream’s parliamentary faction and a driving force behind the bill, being punched in the face on Monday by opposition politician Aleko Elisashvili while speaking before the legislative body.

The incident prompted a brawl pitting legislators against each other.

Russia is widely unpopular in Georgia because of its support of the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia also defeated Georgia in a short war in 2008.

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.

The bill has strained relations with European countries and the United States, which oppose its passage. The EU, which gave Georgia candidate status in December, has said the move is incompatible with the bloc’s values.

Georgian Dream says it wants the country to join the EU and NATO, even as it has deepened ties with Russia and faced accusations of authoritarianism at home. It says the bill is necessary to combat what it calls “pseudo-liberal values” imposed by foreigners and promote transparency.

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