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More protests in Georgia after parliament passes Russian-inspired ‘foreign influence’ law

Scuffles even broke out inside the chamber earlier, as opposition lawmakers clashed with members of the ruling Georgian Dream party.

Demonstrators gather at the fence protecting the gates of the parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo: Reuters

Critics say the bill is a symbol of the ex-Soviet republic’s drift closer to Russia’s orbit over recent years.

Chanting “no to the Russian law”, around 2,000 mainly young protesters gathered outside parliament ahead of the vote and several thousand joined the rally in the evening after news spread that lawmakers had adopted the law.

Protesters later blocked traffic at a key road intersection in central Tbilisi.

The interior ministry said 13 demonstrators were arrested for “disobeying police orders”.

The wife of prominent opposition activist David Katsarava said he was badly beaten by riot police after he was detained at the protest.

Weeks of mass rallies against the bill in Tbilisi culminated on Saturday, when up to 100,000 people took to the streets in the largest anti-government rally in Georgia’s recent history.

The EU has said the law is “incompatible” with Georgia’s longstanding bid to join the 27-nation bloc, while Washington has warned its adoption would signal Tbilisi’s departure from the Western orbit.

On a visit to Georgia, US Assistant Secretary of State Jim O’Brien said the US could impose “travel restrictions and financial sanctions against individuals involved and their families” if the law is not brought in compliance with Western standards and there was violence against peaceful protesters.

Georgian law enforcement officers deployed on the streets in Tbilisi. Photo: AFP

He also warned that some US$390 million allocated this year by Washington in assistance to Georgia would come “under review if we are now regarded as an adversary and not a partner.”

UK defence minister Grant Shapps labelled the foreign influence law an act of “Russian interference in Georgia.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov hit back, accusing the West of “undisguised interference in Georgia’s internal affairs”.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that he would be travelling on Tuesday to Georgia together with his counterparts from Iceland, Estonia and Latvia to express “our concerns”.

Both protesters and the ruling Georgian Dream party have vowed not to back down.

Some protesters say their ultimate goal is to vote out Georgian Dream, which has been in power since 2012.

Georgian lawmakers fighting during a parliament session in Tbilisi. Photo: Mtavari Channel via AP

The bill requires NGOs and media outlets that receive more than 20 per cent of their funding from abroad to register as bodies “pursuing the interests of a foreign power”.

Russia has used a similar law to silence public figures and organisations that disagree with or deviate from the Kremlin’s views.

The EU on Tuesday repeated its position that the bill undermines Tbilisi’s desire to move closer to the bloc.

“EU member countries are very clear that if this law is adopted it will be a serious obstacle for Georgia in its European perspective,” said its spokesman, Peter Stano.

Last year, Georgia was granted official EU candidacy, and Brussels is set to decide in December on the formal launch of accession talks – an unlikely prospect after the law’s adoption.

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili, who is at loggerheads with the government, has vowed to veto the law in what she said would be a “symbolic move” as Georgian Dream has enough lawmakers in parliament to override her veto.

Georgian society is widely anti-Kremlin. Georgia’s bid for membership of the EU and Nato is enshrined in its constitution and – according to opinion polls – supported by a majority of the population.

NGOs and government critics have reported months of intimidation and harassment in the run-up to the bill being reintroduced.

Georgian Dream has depicted the protesters as violent mobs, insisted it is committed to joining the EU, and said the bill is aimed at increasing transparency of NGO funding.

The controversy surrounding the bill comes five months before a parliamentary election seen as a crucial democratic test for the Black Sea country.

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