Georgian MPs override presidential veto of 'foreign agents' law

Georgian opposition supporters rally against a "foreign agents" bill in downtown Tbilisi on Tuesday on which lawmakers were expected to later vote to override a presidential veto clearing the way for the legislation, which has divided the country, to become law. Photo by David Mdzinarishvili/EPA-EFE

May 28 (UPI) -- On Tuesday, Georgian lawmakers overrode a presidential veto of a controversial law forcing Western-backed NGOs and media to register as foreign agents that opponents fear jeopardizes any chance of EU membership and takes the country down the path of closer union with Russia.

Parliament elected to override President Salome Zourabichvili's veto of the "transparency of foreign influence" law in an 84-4 vote with most opposition MPs abstaining.

Protestors gathered outside the legislature in the capital, Tbilisi, before the vote to reverse the May 18 veto at a crucial juncture, the outcome of which will have major implications for the South Caucasus nation for years to come.

Demonstrators chanted "Russian" and "slave" outside of Parliament.

Ahead of the vote, a defiant parliamentary procedural committee said sovereign nations were "not subject to any sanctions by any international standards" and that the vote to override the presidential veto, which unlike the U.S. Congress only requires a simple majority, would go ahead.

The governing Georgian Dream party managed to get the bill requiring media outlets, corruption watchdogs and campaign groups that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad to declare they represent the "interest of a foreign power," through with a 54-vote majority on May 14 after reviving the proposal six weeks earlier.

NGOs, media and other groups that receive grants for pro-democracy and anti-graft efforts from the United States, Germany, Sweden and other Western liberal democracies would be disproportionately affected by the new law which imposes stiff penalties for non-compliance.

The fight put Georgian Dream politicians pushing Kremlin-type conspiracies of an underground "Global War Party" that is pushing Ukraine and Georgia toward war with Russia up against those who see the law as a watershed moment that will either see Georgia align itself with the West, or pivot toward Moscow.

The government had promised to ditch the law "unconditionally" after massive opposition internationally and at home that brought tens of thousands of Georgians onto the streets in March 2023, protests that were met with a heavy-handed response from security forces.

The scene was peaceful as protestors gathered outside the parliament building Tuesday, with a larger rally due to be held closer to the evening vote inside but there were reports of masked security forces in and around the complex.

The United States responded to the passage of the bill by announcing visa restrictions on Georgian officials and a review of its relationship with the country.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there were "clear indications of a campaign of intimidation and the use of violence" to suppress protests and that the law undermined Georgia's democracy and fundamental freedoms.

The European Union's top foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, warned that the adoption of a law he said was "incompatible" with EU values and norms "negatively impacts Georgia's progress on the EU path."

He said the European Council's granting candidate country status to Georgia was on the understanding that the relevant 9 steps set out in the Commission recommendation of Nov. 8, 2023, were implemented.

"These steps require human rights to be protected and civil society as well as media to be able to operate freely. They also refer to the need for depolarisation and the fight against disinformation."

Borrell issued a statement on Tuesday, along with the European Commission, saying that the EU and its member states "are considering all options to react" to the vote.

"Beyond the law on transparency of foreign influence, there has been so far insufficient political attention mobilized to progress substantially on the nine steps," they said. "We urge the Georgia authorities to reverse this trend and to return firmly on the EU path. There is still time to change the dynamics -- but a strong commitment by the governing authorities is needed."

On Monday, the speakers of seven European parliaments also called on Georgia's parliament to withdraw the law, urging the country to stay on the path toward integration with the EU.