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Georgian president vetoes 'foreign agents' bill that has caused widespread protests

Protesters rally against the controversial "foreign influence" bill on Tuesday in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital.
Giorgi Arjevanidze
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AFP via Getty Images
Protesters rally against the controversial "foreign influence" bill on Tuesday in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital.

Updated May 18, 2024 at 12:12 PM ET

Georgia's president on Saturday vetoed its "foreign agents" bill, a controversial piece of legislation that has led to weeks of protest in the former Soviet republic and is seen by many as a tug of war for influence between Russia and the West.

"This law, in its essence and spirit, is fundamentally Russian, contradicting our constitution and all European standards. It thus represents an obstacle to our European path," President Salome Zourabichvili said in announcing the veto on X, formerly Twitter.

Supporters say the law is about transparency and preventing outside influence on Georgian politics, while opponents say it's modeled on a Russian law that has been used to clamp down on dissent.

Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Tbilisi over the weekend in advance on Tuesday's vote.
Giorgi Arjevanidze / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Tbilisi over the weekend in advance on Tuesday's vote.

Video postedon Telegram Tuesday showed protesters trying to break through a barricade set up just outside the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi, the capital, shortly after lawmakers gave their third and final approval of the bill in a vote of 84 in favor, 30 opposed and no abstentions.

But Georgia's parliament can override the president's veto with a simple majority and the ruling Georgian Dream Party, or GD, appears to have the votes to do so.

Here's what you need to know about the bill and what happens next.

The 'foreign agents' bill, and why it's so controversial

The bill, put forth by the GD, requires nongovernmental organizations and media companies that get more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as "pursuing the interests of a foreign power" and provide financial statements about their activities. Those that fail to do so could face hefty fines.

Georgian law enforcement officers are seen deployed on streets as protesters rally against the controversial "foreign influence" bill in Tbilisi on Tuesday.
Vano Shlamov / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Georgian law enforcement officers are seen deployed on streets as protesters rally against the controversial "foreign influence" bill in Tbilisi on Tuesday.

Proponents of the bill say it's necessary to prevent foreign influence and will make information about foreign funding more transparent. They also say the bill is based on a similar U.S. law — theForeign Agents Registration Act — which dates back to 1938.

But critics, who call the legislation "the Russian law," say that a similar law passed by Moscow in 2012 has been used to crack down on critics of the Kremlin, from independent media organizations to human rights groups. Many say the Georgian government is using the law to align Georgia closer to Russia and quell dissent ahead of key national elections this fall.

In aninterview with NPR earlier this month, GD lawmaker Maka Botchorishvili, who heads the parliament's committee on EU integration, fiercely rejected accusations that her party is aligning itself with Russia.

"As [a] Georgian politician and Georgian citizen, it is very much insulting when somebody puts Georgia and Russia on the same level," Botchorishvili said.

She said Russia remains Georgia's "No. 1 threat" given the Kremlin has occupied parts of Georgian territory since a brief war in 2008.

Last year, widespread protest forced the government to abandon efforts to pass a similar law.

What protesters are saying

The current protests began in mid-April, shortly after Georgia's parliament passed its first reading of the bill. Since then, demonstrators — including a large swath of people from Generation Z — have been gathering at nightly marches toward the parliament. Many of them say they want to ensure Georgia's future includes entry into the European Union.

While Georgia was given official candidate status for EU membership in 2023, critics say the foreign agents bill is incompatible with European values of democracy and free speech. If the bill becomes law, it would likely create a headache for Brussels to move forward with Georgia's EU candidacy.

ADecember 2023 poll from the National Democratic Institute found that 79% of Georgians support the idea of EU membership.

"I want to be a part of Europe, and I want my freedom, as my other friends do," Mariam Esaiashvili, a university student, told NPR at a protest in Tbilisi earlier this month. "But this law just gets us more far from that mission."

"We are in the crossroads right now," said Giorgi Gzirishvili, a 29-year-old IT specialist who has been protesting since April. "We either have to ensure our future by becoming a member of NATO and [the] European Union, or we'll not exist in 10-15 years."

How the most recent protests have unfolded

While initially attracting younger crowds, the largely peaceful protests have galvanized Georgians of all ages in more recent days.

More than 50,000 gathered in the capital Tbilisi last weekend, with huge crowds seen marching through Europe Square, chanting "Georgia!"

Thousands stayed overnight in front of the parliament, where they tried to block lawmakers from entering the building to discuss the bill.

Masked security eventually showed up to disperse the crowds in the early morning hours,using water cannon trucks, tear gas and rubber bullets to remove people.

Georgian law enforcement officers detain protesters outside the parliament during a rally against the controversial "foreign influence" bill in Tbilisi on Tuesday.
Giorgi Arjevanidze / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Georgian law enforcement officers detain protesters outside the parliament during a rally against the controversial "foreign influence" bill in Tbilisi on Tuesday.

Twenty people were detained over the weekend, according to Russian state news, including two Americans and one Russian citizen.

What happens next

The ruling GD party has enough control in parliament to override her, making Zourabichvili's veto largely symbolic.

Demonstrations, meanwhile, are expected to continue.

The two biggest figureheads in Georgia, Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze and the Georgian Dream party's billionaire founder Bidzina Ivanishvili are both eager for the bill to pass.

Kornely Kakachia, the director of theGeorgian Institute of Politics, told NPR he sees the law as a way for Ivanishvili to exert more control over free media and civil society.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Rebecca Rosman
[Copyright 2024 NPR]