La Gaceta De Mexico - Fistfights in Georgian parliament as 'foreign influence' bill looms

Fistfights in Georgian parliament as 'foreign influence' bill looms

Fistfights in Georgian parliament as 'foreign influence' bill looms

Scuffles broke out on Tuesday in Georgia's parliament, where lawmakers are expected to adopt a divisive "foreign influence" law criticised by protesters for mirroring Russian legislation used to silence dissent.

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

The European Union on Tuesday warned Georgia that passing the law would hamper its push to join the bloc.

Tbilisi has seen three straight nights of mass rallies over the bill, which mirrors repressive laws introduced in Russia and has been 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 draft law over a month ago.

It replaces an earlier version that the government scrapped last year in the face of mass protests.

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

During a heated debate, ruling party and opposition lawmakers scuffled and traded blows, footage aired by Georgia's public broadcaster showed.

A crowd of some 2,000 protesters meanwhile gathered outside, mainly students who have been refusing to attend classes and announced a fresh evening rally.

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

- Fears for EU integration -

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

Russia has used a similar law to silence public figures and organisations that disagree with or deviate from the Kremlin's views.

Protesters say adopting 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.

The EU said on Tuesday the bill undermined Tbilisi's aspirations to join the 27-nation bloc.

"EU member countries are very clear that if this law is adopted it will be a serious obstacle for Georgia in its European perspective," said its spokesman, Peter Stano.

Young Georgians have voiced outrage over the possibility that a future closer to Europe is at risk.

"We were five years old when the war with Russia happened. We have bad childhood memories of that," Doborianidze said, referring to Moscow's 2008 invasion of Georgia.

- 'Worried but not scared' -

Georgian Dream has said it will not cave in to the protesters, depicting them as violent mobs, and has insisted it is committed to joining the EU.

But its billionaire backer, Bidzina Ivanishvili -- a mysterious figure who made his fortunes in 1990s Russia -- made an anti-Western speech last month and has accused NGOs of plotting a revolution.

Prime Minister Kobakhidze has said Ivanishvili will not meet US Assistant 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 is says is "inconsistent" with integration into the EU.

"These people in there don't listen to us at all," said teacher Mariam Javakhishvili, standing outside parliament with her son.

The 34-year-old said the ruling party lawmakers were undoing progress made since the collapse of the Soviet Union, adding: "I don't want to let that happen for my kids".

"I'm worried about police violence but I'm not scared of it," she added.

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

"We are waiting for when we will have a choice to choose a new government," said 27-year-old hotel manager Peter, who declined to give his last name over fears for his security.