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Tens of thousands rally in Tbilisi against ‘foreign influence’ Bill

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TBILISI: Tens of thousands of Georgians descended onto Tbilisi’s Europe Square on Saturday (May 11) in the latest mass protest against a “foreign influence” Bill likened to repressive Russian legislation that has sparked outrage.

The Caucasus country has been gripped by protests since early April, when in a shock move billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s ruling Georgian Dream party brought the Bill back a year after dropping it.

If passed, the Bill would require NGOs receiving at least 20 percent of foreign funding – encompassing virtually all groups in the sector – to register as acting under “foreign influence”.

The Bill, which would also affect independent media, mirrors legislation used by the Kremlin to silence dissent and has been dubbed the “Russian law” in Georgia, which observers say has seen democratic backsliding in recent years.

Georgian Dream has defended the Bill, saying it will increase transparency over NGOs’ foreign funding. It says it aims to sign the measure into law by mid-May.

Protesters say the Bill is proof the ruling party is steering Georgia away from the national goal of joining the European Union and is being used to consolidate power.

“We realise what this law will do to our country … We will not have freedom of speech,” said 21-year-old student Anri Papidze, who came to the protest.

He said he would do “everything” for the protests to be successful and for Georgia to join the EU.

Under the pouring rain, many chanted “No to Russian law!” and held Georgian, EU and Ukrainian flags.

The protests have been led by the youngest generations and are heavy in anti-Kremlin slogans, with young Georgians worried authorities are bringing the ex-Soviet country back under Russia’s orbit.

“We are protecting our European future and our freedom,” said 39-year-old Mariam Meunargia.

“But we see that our government is taking us in the Russian direction.”

CIVIL SOCIETY “WIPED OUT”

Saturday’s rally came after days of what activists called an intimidation campaign.

Ivanishvili has declared NGOs the enemy from within, accusing them of working on behalf of a foreign state and plotting a revolution.

Ahead of the protest, several leading activists and NGO figures reported their homes and offices were covered in posters that read “foreign agent” on them.

On Europe Square, crowds chanted in support of those who were targeted.

The stand-off over the Bill has created one of the tensest political moments in the tiny country – ruled by Georgian Dream since 2012 – in years.

Many protesters also believed that authorities want to rush the Bill to prepare the ground for an autumn election.

Georgian Dream has also shown no sign of backing down, saying the protests are led by a manipulated youth.

“Georgian people are not stupid,” 26-year-old protester and civic activist Ana Tavadze said.

“We’ve seen what this caused in Russia: it wiped out the entire civil society.”

The “foreign agent” label – which has Stalin-era connotations – has been used in Russia against Kremlin critics.

Tavadze said Georgian youth were inspired by “inter-generational strengths” carried through the small nation’s history.

“PLAY MY PART”

Walking through the mostly young crowd, 83-year-old Tabukashvili Guliko carried a small EU and Georgian flag with her 88-year-old husband.

“I want to play my part,” the white-haired woman, wearing a grey scarf, said.

Guliko, which means “heart” in Georgian, said she did not come to previous rallies because she was recovering from heart surgery.

She said she “only had some days left” and dreamed of seeing Georgia in the EU.

The European Union, the United States and the United Nations have spoken out against the legislation, with the UN human rights chief Volker Turk also voicing concern about police violence against protesters.

Saturday’s protest was peaceful, with rock music blasting out from a stage, and a choir singing the EU’s Ode to Joy in a traditional Georgian style.

On Apr 30, Georgian police violently broke up a demonstration.

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