Georgia President Vetoes Foreign Influence Bill

Georgia President Salome Zourabichvili said Saturday she had vetoed a foreign influence bill that sparked protests and plunged the nation into a political crisis, threatening to derail her pro-European aspirations in favor of closer ties. close with Russia.

The Georgian Parliament, which passed the bill in three readings, is expected to override the veto. The ruling Georgian Dream party, which presented the bill, can turn it into law as early as May 28, when Parliament returns to session.

Ms. Zourabichvili called her veto “symbolic,” but it nevertheless represents another step in the political conflict between the country's pro-Western opposition, which Ms. Zourabichvili supports, and the Georgian Dream party, which has been in power since 2012.

The crisis has highlighted the highly polarized nature of Georgia's political life. It has called into question the country's pro-Western course, enshrined in its Constitution, as American and European officials have threatened to scale back ties with the country and impose sanctions on its leadership if the law is finalized and protests against it it had been repressed. .

Georgia, a mountainous nation of 3.6 million people in the middle of the Caucasus, was once a pro-Western pioneer among former Soviet states. If it were to move away from the West in favor of a closer relationship with Russia, the geopolitics of the entire region could change, due to the country's central geographic location.

The bill that triggered the crisis bears an innocuous-sounding title: “On the Transparency of Foreign Influence.”

It requires non-governmental groups and media outlets that receive more than 20% of their funding from foreign sources to register as “organizations carrying the interests of foreign power” and provide annual financial statements for their activities. Georgia's Ministry of Justice would be given broad powers to monitor compliance with the rules. Violations could result in fines equivalent to more than $9,000.

The ruling party insists that the bill is necessary to strengthen Georgia's sovereignty against external interference in its political life by Western-funded NGOs and media organizations. But the country's political opposition refers to it as the “Russian law,” designed to convert Georgia into a pro-Moscow state in substance, if not in name.

“This law, in its essence and spirit, is fundamentally Russian and contradicts our Constitution and all European standards,” Ms. Zourabichvili said in announcing the veto on Saturday. “This law is not subject to any change or improvement, which makes it an easy veto,” she said in a televised address. “This law must be repealed.”

In 2018, Ms Zourabichivili was supported by the Georgian Dream party in her successful bid to become president. But in the years since, Ms. Zourabichvili has become increasingly critical of the party's policies, a process of mutual alienation that peaked with the party's failed attempt to impeach her in 2023.

Born in Paris to a family of prominent Georgian émigrés who fled the Bolshevik occupation of the country in 1921, Ms. Zourabichvili, in her first official role in Georgia, served as France's ambassador to the country in 2003. The following year she accepted nationality Georgian and became the country's first female Foreign Minister, a role she held until October 2005. Before becoming President of Georgia, Ms. Zourabichvili also founded her own political party and was elected to Parliament in 2016.

Although her role is largely ceremonial, Ms. Zourabichvili has become the public face of protest against the rule of the Georgian Dream party, as opposition parties in Georgia have suffered internal splits.

Since the bill was introduced in early April, the country's capital, Tbilisi, has been engulfed in protests against it. Protesters, many of them students, marched through the streets of Tbilisi almost every day shouting: “No to Russian law.” They repeatedly surrounded the imposing Soviet-era Parliament building on Rustaveli Avenue and tried to block its entrances.

Many protests turned violent as riot police officers pushed demonstrators away from the Parliament building, often using tear gas, pepper spray and fists to disperse them. Many opposition members were arrested and beaten. Some reported being harassed and intimidated by the authorities. On Saturday, after Mrs Zourabichvili's veto, protesters once again filled the square in front of Parliament.

In late April, the ruling party, led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a reclusive oligarch who returned to Georgia in the early 2000s after making his fortune in Russia, organized a rally in support of the bill. On Friday, thousands of conservative Georgians marched in a religious procession through the city center to one of Tbilisi's main cathedrals. Many of them said they support the bill.

“I have friends in Ukraine, Russia, Moldova,” said Gocha Kekenadze, a farmer who came from the Kakheti region east of Tbilisi to join the march. “We want to live as before” in the Soviet Union, said Kekenadze, 62. “It's the Americans telling us to pick up a rifle and fight Russia.”

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