Lawmakers brawl as Georgian Parliament considers ‘foreign agent’ bill

Legislators debate bill requiring organisations that accept overseas funds to register as foreign agents or face fines.

Lawmakers in Georgia have come to blows inside parliament as ruling party legislators appeared likely to advance a bill on “foreign agents” that has been criticised by Western countries and has caused protests at home as “pro-Russia”.

Footage broadcast on Georgian television showed Mamuka Mdinaradze, leader of the ruling Georgian Dream party’s parliamentary faction and a driving force behind the bill, being punched in the face on Monday by opposition MP Aleko Elisashvili while speaking before the legislative body.

Tensions in parliament have bubbled up in recent years as the ruling party and the opposition have debated whether to deepen relations with the West or reconnect the former Soviet republic with Russia.

Russia is widely unpopular in Georgia due to Moscow’s support of the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia also defeated Georgia in a short war in 2008.

The incident on Monday prompted a wider brawl between several lawmakers, an occasional occurrence in the often raucous Georgian Parliament.

‘No to the Russian law’

Footage showed Elisashvili being greeted with cheers after the incident by protesters gathered outside the parliament building.

Before a rally to protest the bill on Monday evening, protesters unfurled a large European Union flag and shouted: “No to the Russian law!”

“Georgia’s society is strong enough not to allow the country to slide into Russian-styled authoritarianism,” Saba Gotua, an architect, told the Agence France-Presse news agency.

Georgian Dream said this month that it would reintroduce legislation requiring organisations that accept funds from abroad to register as foreign agents or face fines, 13 months after protests forced it to shelve the plan.

The bill has strained relations with European countries and the United States, which have said they oppose its passage. The EU, which gave Georgia candidate status in December, has said the legislation is incompatible with the bloc’s values.

Georgian Dream says it wants the country to join the EU and NATO even as it has deepened ties with Russia and faced accusations of authoritarianism at home. It says the bill is necessary to combat what it calls “pseudo-liberal values” imposed by foreigners and to promote transparency.

Deep divisions

Georgia’s government said Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze held a meeting on Monday with the EU, British and US ambassadors during which they discussed the bill.

In a statement, Kobakhidze defended the draft law as promoting accountability and said it was “not clear” why Western countries opposed it.

The US said last week that passing the law would “derail Georgia from its European path”.

“We are deeply concerned that, if it is enacted, this draft legislation would harm civil society organisations [and] … impede independent media organisations,” US Department of State spokesman Matthew Miller told journalists.

Last year, Kobakhidze also clashed with the West over the imposition of sanctions on Russia, saying the move would “destroy” Tbilisi’s economy and “damage the interests” of Georgian citizens.

Georgian critics have labelled the bill “the Russian law”, comparing it to similar legislation used by the Kremlin to crack down on dissent in Russia.

If approved by members of the legislature’s legal affairs committee, which is controlled by Georgian Dream and its allies, the foreign agent bill could proceed to a first reading in parliament.

The adoption of the legislation is likely to further deepen divisions in Georgia, whose staunchly pro-Western president, Salome Zurabishvili, has condemned the bill as damaging to democracy.

Georgia is due to hold elections by October. Opinion polls show that Georgian Dream remains the most popular party but has lost ground since 2020 when it won a narrow majority.

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