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Georgia president says EU dream at risk over ‘foreign agent’ law

TBILISI, GEORGIA – MARCH 08: President Of Georgia, Salome Zourabichvili, at work in her office on March 8, 2022 in Tbilisi, Georgia. Zourabichvili who serves as the fifth President of Georgia is French-born politician and a former diplomat. Her office is located in a simple room alongside her staff members in a Presidents Residency, the Orbeliani 18th century Palace. French-born Georgian politician Salome Zourabichvili, the first woman to be elected as Georgia’s president is also the commander-in-chief of the Defence Forces, currently serves as the fifth President of Georgia, after Georgia formally seceded from the Soviet Union on 9 April 1991. On March 7, 2022, the European Union launched the procedure to examine the applications for membership of three countries; Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, that submitted their application for integration into the European Union following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by Daro Sulakauri/Getty Images)  (Daro Sulakauri)
Bloomberg News

Bloomberg News

Georgia’s president warned the country may lose its chance to join the European Union if the government pushes ahead with a controversial “foreign agent” law in the face of huge protests.

“We are at a very concerning point,” President Salome Zourabichvili said in an interview Friday with Bloomberg TV’s Francine Lacqua. “We might be losing a very important chance, and that chance might not come back in the future, and that would be the responsibility of the government.”

Elections scheduled for October will allow Georgians to show “that what they want is Europe and nothing else,” Zourabichvili said. Until then, the country’s Western partners “need to put pressure on the authorities to stop intimidation” by police of peaceful protesters who’ve turned out for 38 days in a row to oppose the legislation, she said.

The EU granted Georgia candidate status in December on condition that it meets nine steps set out by the European Commission, including ones requiring protection of human rights and of civil society and independent media. Officials have warned that adoption of the bill would amount to backsliding on those conditions, making it unlikely the commission would recommend member states open accession talks with Georgia this fall.

Zourabichvili has pledged to veto the law passed this week by the ruling Georgian Dream party, which was founded by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country’s richest man.

The government has said the law on the “transparency of foreign influence” is needed to expose the funding of nongovernmental organizations and media. Ivanishvili lashed out at the West in a speech last month, saying a “global war party” was attempting to use NGOs to oust his government and push Georgia into a conflict with Russia.

Riot police have used tear gas, pepper spray and water cannon in repeated clashes with protesters.

The EU and the U.S., which have condemned the use of force, have urged Georgian Dream to withdraw what they’ve called the “Kremlin-inspired” law because it’s similar to one employed by President Vladimir Putin to crush pro-democracy groups and media in Russia.

The measure threatens fines and imprisonment for as long as five years for organizations or individuals that receive at least 20% of their income from abroad and fail to register with the government as “pursuing the interests of a foreign power.”

The government’s rhetoric is “anti-Western, anti-European, from the top to the bottom of the ruling party,” Zourabichvili said. They’re using “very Russian language” to attack U.S. and EU partners who’ve helped Georgia for 30 years, she said.

—With assistance from Max Ramsay.