Georgia's ruling party to reintroduce aborted bill on 'foreign agents'

Georgian Dream ruling party holds a rally ahead of the run-off of the local election in Tbilisi

By Felix Light

TBILISI (Reuters) -Georgia's ruling party said on Wednesday it would reintroduce legislation requiring organisations that accept funds from abroad to register as foreign agents, 13 months after backing down on the plan in the face of major protests.

The bill, likened by critics to a law Russian President Vladimir Putin has used to crush dissent, would require Georgian organisations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as "foreign agents" or face fines.

In a briefing, the head of the Georgian Dream governing bloc's parliamentary faction, Mamuka Mdinaradze, said opposition parties had misled the public about the legislation last year, and an almost identical bill would be passed before parliament breaks up for an election in October.

Georgian Dream abandoned an attempt to introduce the bill in March 2023 after two nights of violent unrest in Tbilisi and criticism from Western countries who called the move an example of democratic backsliding.

The party has said that the bill, which it asserts was misrepresented in the media, is necessary to ensure transparency of funding for organisations working in the Caucasus republic.

Georgia was granted candidate status in December for European Union membership, but Georgian Dream has maintained its rhetoric against civil society organisations, which it has accused of plotting revolution.

Georgia's opposition dubbed the foreign agent bill a "Russian law", a potent accusation in a country that emerged from the disintegrating Soviet Union in 1991, and where Moscow is widely disliked for its support of the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Opposition MPs predicted on Wednesday that the bill's return would prompt a repeat of the mass protests that scuttled it last year. President Salome Zourabichvili, a former ally turned critic of the ruling party, accused the government of "sabotaging our path (to Europe) and our future".

Georgian Dream, which has governed since 2012, has in recent years been accused by domestic and Western critics of authoritarian tendencies and excessive closeness to Russia, though it says it wants Georgia to join both the EU and NATO.

The party was founded by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia's former prime minister and one of its richest men who is still widely seen to wield control over it.

Opinion polls indicate that the party remains Georgia's most popular, but that it has lost ground since 2020, when it secured a narrow parliamentary majority.

Last month, Georgian Dream said it would seek to introduce a law imposing sweeping restrictions on LGBT rights, including banning the "promotion" of same-sex relationships and gender transitions.

(Reporting by Felix Light; editing by Peter Graff and Mark Heinrich)