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A proposed Russia-style 'foreign agents' law sparks protests in country of Georgia

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A series of protests have rocked the small former Soviet republic of Georgia in recent weeks. At issue is a controversial draft bill in parliament. It targets the country's civil society, and critics say the bill shows Kremlin influence. Well, NPR's Charles Maynes is in the capital of Georgia tonight, Tbilisi. Hi there, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi, there.

KELLY: Hey. So tell me what's at the heart of this proposed law - why it's so controversial.

MAYNES: Sure. Yeah, this law was introduced by the ruling Georgia (ph) Dream Party, and it's winding its way through parliament. And it would force NGOs and independent media that received more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as foreign agents. Now, supporters say this is about transparency. They say the bill would stem the flow of dark money and foreign influence in Georgian politics. But opponents argue the measure is essentially a copy of foreign agents legislation out of Russia, which I can attest, as someone normally based in Moscow, the Kremlin has used to crush political dissent at home.

Now, another factor here is the timing. You know, Georgia recently achieved European Union membership candidate status. That's essentially a first step on a long road towards EU membership. And European officials have warned this law could do damage to those ambitions. And so the question many are asking is, then, why is the government so determined to push this through? In fact, it's so determined, it's the government's second try. A draft bill last year was pulled after mass street protests - after street protests took over the capital.

KELLY: Yeah, I remember those protests from last year, and now they're back, I gather. You've been out. You've been able to see them, talk to people?

MAYNES: Yeah. In fact, protesters are still out tonight, and it's well past 1 a.m. here.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLES BLOWING)

MAYNES: Thousands gathered outside the parliament, blaring horns and blowing whistles and holding EU and Georgian flags. Now, this scene has gone on every night for two weeks. Only, tonight, the police response was very aggressive, with riot troops using water cannons, rubber bullets, pepper spray to disperse the crowds.

You know, it's worth noting that the majority of protesters are young Georgians. These are people who see this law as an effort by the government to pull the country away from Europe and back into Russia's orbit. And that includes Marian Esalashvili (ph), a university student, who told me she and her friends won't give up.

MARIAN ESALASHVILI: If they still dare to make this law happen, we will be here, and we will protest and protest. We won't stop. We're a new generation, and I don't think that they can stop us. Georgian people have always been fighters, and we will continue that legacy.

KELLY: Always been fighters, she's saying there. OK. What about those who see this quite differently - who back the government - who are fighting for this measure to pass?

MAYNES: Well, in fact, there was a large counterrally last night at the same spot outside the parliament. Tens of thousands were bussed in from all over Georgia. The government says they attended voluntarily. And I did talk to people who argued this law was just common sense. Yet they were treated to a rare public appearance by Bidzina Ivanishvili. This is Georgia's richest man, the former prime minister, who is widely believed to run Georgia Dream and, effectively, the country.

And strangely, Ivanishvili said he actually would use this foreign agent law to go after political rivals, who he said had used NGOs and Western money to foment revolution and undermine Georgia's sovereignty. And this is odd because while, officially, Ivanishvili backs Georgia joining the EU, measures like this law and his language would seem to diminish Georgia's chances for membership.

KELLY: I'm listening to you, and I'm thinking, OK, it sounds like he's trying to have it both ways.

MAYNES: It does. You know, opponents of Georgia Dream argue this foreign agents law is the latest example of Ivanishvili and his party giving lip service to eurointegration while essentially embracing policies designed to slow-walk or maybe even undermine that EU bid - perhaps even at Russia's bidding. Now, Georgia Dream members vehemently deny that charge. So does the Kremlin. But it reflects Georgia's, you know, greater challenge here. It's a small country torn between its geography - next to Russia - and its aspirations, looking West.

KELLY: That is NPR's Charles Maynes reporting from that small country tonight and from its capital, Tbilisi, on protests unfolding there this evening. Thank you, Charles.

MAYNES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FUGEES SONG, "READY OR NOT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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