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Fistfights in Georgian parliament as ‘foreign influence’ bill looms

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Clashes broke out Tuesday in Georgia’s parliament, where lawmakers are expected to pass a divisive “foreign influence” law criticized by protesters as mirroring Russian law used to clamp down on dissent. to silence.

The altercations between opposition MPs and the ruling party erupted as hundreds of mostly young protesters gathered in growing numbers outside parliament for another day of protests against the bill.

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The European Union warned Georgia on Tuesday that passing the law would hinder its accession to the bloc.

Tbilisi has seen three consecutive nights of mass demonstrations over the bill, which mirrors repressive laws introduced in Russia and condemned by the European Union and the United States.

Tens of thousands of people have protested in the country, a former Soviet republic, since the Georgian Dream party reintroduced the bill more than a month ago.

It replaces an earlier version that the government scrapped last year due to mass protests.

Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze said this week that his government would push the bill through a third and final reading on Tuesday, despite rising tensions.

During a heated debate, lawmakers from the ruling party and the opposition fought each other and exchanged blows, footage broadcast by Georgia’s public broadcaster showed.

A crowd of about 2,000 protesters meanwhile gathered outside, mostly students who refused to attend classes and announced another evening meeting.

“I hope there will be peace here,” 20-year-old Marta Doborianidze told AFP.

– Fear of integration into the EU –

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

Russia has used a similar law to silence public figures and organizations that disagree with or differ from the Kremlin’s positions.

Protesters say passing the measure would pull Georgia away from its plans to one day join the EU and instead bring Tbilisi closer to its former master, Russia.

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The EU said on Tuesday the bill undermines Tbilisi’s ambitions to join the 27-nation bloc.

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

Young Georgians have expressed outrage at the possibility that a future closer to Europe may be in jeopardy.

“We were five years old when the war with Russia took place. We have bad childhood memories of that,” Doborianidze said, referring to Moscow’s invasion of Georgia in 2008.

– ‘Worried but not afraid’ –

Georgian Dream has said it will not give in to the protesters, portraying them as violent gangs, and has stressed its desire to join the EU.

But billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili – a mysterious figure who made his fortune in 1990s Russia – delivered an anti-Western speech last month, accusing NGOs of plotting a revolution.

Prime Minister Kobakhidze has said Ivanishvili will not meet US Deputy Secretary of State Jim O’Brien, who is due to arrive in Tbilisi later on Tuesday.

Washington has urged Georgia to drop the legislation, which it says is “inconsistent” with EU integration.

“These people there are not listening to us at all,” said teacher Mariam Javakhishvili, who stood outside parliament with her son.

The 34-year-old said ruling party lawmakers were reversing progress made since the collapse of the Soviet Union, adding: “I don’t want this to happen to my children.”

“I worry about police brutality, but I’m not afraid of it,” she added.

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The controversy surrounding the bill comes five months before parliamentary elections and some protesters say their ultimate goal is to vote out Georgian Dream, who has been in power since 2012.

“We are waiting for the moment when we will have the choice to elect a new government,” said 27-year-old hotel manager Peter, who declined to give his surname for fear for his safety.

© Agence France-Presse