Georgia’s president vetoes controversial ‘foreign agents’ bill

President Salome Zourabichvili says the law is ‘Russian in its essence’, but parliament is expected to overturn veto.

Demonstrators protest against a bill on ‘foreign agents’ in Tbilisi, Georgia, May 14, 2024 [File: Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters]Published On 18 May 202418 May 2024

Georgia’s President Salome Zourabichvili has vetoed the “foreign influence” bill that has sparked unprecedented protests in the country and warnings from Brussels that the measure would undermine Tbilisi’s European Union aspirations.

But Zourabichvili’s veto on Saturday is likely to only delay the proposed legislation, not block it. The parliament can override the veto with an additional vote.

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“Today I set a veto … on the law, which is Russian in its essence and which contradicts our constitution,” Zourabichvili said in a televised statement.

Critics have said the bill resembles Russian legislation used to silence dissent. The draft law requires non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and media outlets with more than 20 percent of their funding coming from outside Georgia to register as bodies “pursuing the interests of a foreign power”.

If they refuse to do so and to disclose sensitive information about foreign funding, they will meet a fine of 25,000 lari ($9,360), followed by additional fines of 20,000 lari ($7,490) for each month of non-compliance thereafter.

On Tuesday, Georgia’s Parliament passed the bill proposed by the Georgian Dream party, which has been in power since 2022.

The party has enough votes in the parliament to overturn the president’s veto with a simple majority.

Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze who belongs to the Georgian Dream, has signalled his party’s readiness to consider Zourabichvili’s proposed amendments to the law, should she lay them out in her veto document.

But Zourabichvili – who is at odds with the governing party – has ruled out the prospect of entering “false, artificial, misleading negotiations” with Georgian Dream.

The foreign agents bill has mass protests against it rattling Georgia’s capital Tbilisi for the past few weeks.

NGO and media organisations fear being forced to close if they do not comply. Eka Gigauri, head of the Georgian branch of Transparency International, the anticorruption NGO which has operated in the country for 24 years, told France24, “The implication would be that they might freeze our assets.”

Critics have argued that the draft law would limit media freedom and jeopardise the country’s bid to join the EU.

Opponents of the bill also said that the bill will move Georgia closer to Russia. The two former Soviet countries have had a strained relationship since Georgia’s independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, warned on May 1 that Georgia was “at a crossroads”.

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

Georgia applied to be part of the EU in 2022 and was granted candidate status in December last year.

The US has also been urging Georgia against approving the bill, saying it would be inconsistent with its stated goal to join the EU and have a relationship with NATO.

The Georgian Dream party has insisted it is committed to joining the EU, and portrays the bill as aimed at increasing the transparency of NGO funding.

Source: News Agencies