Protests in Georgia as MPs set to override veto on 'foreign influence' law

Thousands take part in the latest demonstration in the Georgian capital against the government's new "foreign influence" law (Giorgi ARJEVANIDZE)
Thousands take part in the latest demonstration in the Georgian capital against the government's new "foreign influence" law (Giorgi ARJEVANIDZE)

Thousands took part in a new rally in the Georgian capital on Friday against a controversial anti-NGO law, as the country's parliament said it would start proceedings next week to override a presidential veto.

The ruling Georgian Dream party's "foreign influence" law -- which targets NGOs and media outlets that receive funding from abroad -- has triggered a month of huge street rallies in Tbilisi and sparked condemnation from Europe and the United States.

Opponents say the law mirrors Russian legislation used to silence dissent and risks destroying the Black Sea nation's shot at EU membership.

Georgian Dream blasted the United States for "encroaching" on Georgian sovereignty after Washington announced a plan for visa restrictions on Georgian officials over the legislation.

Almost daily rallies against the law have been held since April 9. And several thousand protesters gathered in central Tbilisi on Friday evening to show solidarity with people arrested at previous demonstrations, an AFP reporter saw.

Waving Georgian and EU flags, demonstrators marched from Freedom Square to the interior ministry headquarters to demand the release of detainees.

"We will never tolerate a pro-Russian government in Georgia," student demonstrator Misha Kavtaradze, 20, told AFP.

"No to the Russian law, yes to Europe," he added.

Georgian MPs adopted the law last week but it was later vetoed by President Salome Zurabishvili, who is at loggerheads with the government.

The parliament press office told AFP that a legal affairs committee will discuss overruling the veto on Monday, formally launching the procedure that could see the measures finally come into force.

A vote at a plenary session is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, the press office said.

Georgian Dream has enough MPs to override the veto and Zurabishvili has admitted her attempt to block the legislation holds only "symbolic" power.

- 'Undermining democracy' -

The law requires NGOs and media outlets receiving more than 20 percent of funding from abroad to register as acting "in the interests of a foreign power."

It has been blasted as undemocratic by Western countries.

Georgian Dream slammed Washington's announcement Thursday of visa restrictions for "individuals who are responsible for or complicit in undermining democracy in Georgia" over the law.

In a statement, it accused the United States of "visa blackmail" and a "flagrant attempt to encroach on Georgia's independence and sovereignty."

The law was re-introduced one year after Georgian Dream dropped similar proposals that also triggered mass protests.

The rallies have turned violent on several occasions. Police have beat and arrested demonstrators and used tear gas and water cannon to disperse the rallies.

Georgian Dream insists it is still committed to joining the EU and NATO, and portrays the bill being aimed at increasing the transparency of NGO funding.

Protesters accuse the party of bringing the country back into Moscow's orbit and sabotaging Georgia's European aspirations that are enshrined in the constitution. Polls indicated more than 80 percent of the population support joining the EU.

The showdown comes ahead of parliamentary elections in October, seen as a crucial test of the country's democratic transition more than three decades after it gained independence with the fall of the Soviet Union.