Why are Georgians protesting against a ‘foreign agents’ bill?

<span>Demonstrators with Georgian national and EU flags shout anti-government slogans near the parliament building in the centre of Tbilisi.</span><span>Photograph: Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP</span>
Demonstrators with Georgian national and EU flags shout anti-government slogans near the parliament building in the centre of Tbilisi.Photograph: Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP

Georgia has been rocked for weeks by demonstrations against a bill that would force non-governmental groups and media to register as “organisations serving the interest of a foreign power” if more than 20% of their funding comes from overseas.

Overnight on Sunday and into Monday protesters were engaged in a last-stand demonstration against the bill before a final vote in parliament on Tuesday.

Riot police armed with water cannon and teargas were accused of beating protesters picketing outside parliament.

Why are Georgians protesting?

Thousands of Georgians have been demonstrating since 17 April, when the country’s parliament approved a first reading of the bill

Protesters, largely young people, say it will sabotage the Caucasus country’s hopes of joining the EU and stifle civil society. It has been described as “the Russian law” by critics as it resembles repressive legislation used by the Kremlin.

Georgia, with a population of 3.7 million, joined countries trying to gain accession to the EU when it was granted official candidate status last December. The political crisis comes at a time when many Georgians fear their country is moving away from the west. “Everyone clearly understood that the purpose of the adoption of the Russian law is not the notorious ‘transparency’, but the change of the country’s foreign course and the completion of Russification,” Transparency International Georgia said at the end of April.

What has the government been saying?

The government, which has been in power for 12 years, claims to be pro-EU but it has avoided placing sanctions on Russia over the war in Ukraine and critics claim it has been seeking to strengthen ties with the Kremlin.

The ruling Georgian Dream party’s founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has defended the bill and lashed out at the west. In a recent speech heavy with conspiracy theories, the billionaire hit out at a “global party of war” and suggested the country’s pro-western opposition was controlled by foreign intelligence services.

The comments further fuelled fears among the government’s critics that the ruling Georgian Dream party, which has been in power since 2012, could crack down on dissent before parliamentary elections later this year.

How have authorities responded?

Police have used teargas and water cannons to disperse the crowds, acting at times with “disproportionate force”, according to watchdogs.

The Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association said that “peaceful protest is a mechanism for promoting democratic processes in the hands of citizens, and any attempt to suppress it is an anti-constitutional act”.

Salome Zourabichvili, the president of Georgia – whose role is primarily ceremonial – criticised what she said was a “totally unwarranted, unprovoked and out-of-proportion use of force ongoing in Tbilisi against peaceful protesters”.

“Full responsibility falls entirely on the government. Right of peaceful protest is denied to the Georgian people,” she said, adding the hashtag “#notoRussianlaw”.

What has the international community said and what will it mean for Georgia’s hopes of joining the EU?

The crackdown on protesters has prompted criticism from Brussels.

“I strongly condemn the violence against protesters in Georgia who were peacefully demonstrating against the law on foreign influence,” the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said on 1 May. “Georgia is an EU candidate country. I call on its authorities to ensure the right to peaceful assembly. Use of force to suppress it is unacceptable.”

David McAllister, the chair of the European parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said the “brutal crackdown” underlined “the very concerning direction the Georgian government has taken with regard to democratic freedoms”. “This law has the potential to seriously derail Georgia’s path towards EU membership,” he said.

The US state department has also expressed concern about the legislation. Jim O’Brien, the department’s assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, said he had an “important conversation with Georgian MPs about our bilateral relationship, including our strong concerns over the draft Kremlin-inspired ‘foreign influence’ law and its negative impact on Georgia’s European aspirations”.