Georgian parliament committee rejects presidential veto of the divisive 'foreign agents' legislation

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — A Georgian parliament committee on Monday rejected the president’s veto of the “foreign agents” legislation that has sparked massive protests for weeks.

The move by the parliament’s judiciary committee sets up the possibility of a vote of the full legislature on Tuesday to override President Salome Zourabichvili’s veto of the measure, which she and other critics say will restrict media freedom and obstruct Georgia’s chances of joining the European Union.

The law would require news media and non-governmental organizations that get more than 20% of their budget from abroad to register as “carrying out the interests of a foreign power.” Opponents denounce it as “the Russian law” because it resembles measures pushed through by the Kremlin.

The ruling Georgian Dream party has insisted that the bill is needed to stem what it deems to be harmful foreign actors trying to destabilize the South Caucasus nation of 3.7 million people.

“It's absolutely important for Georgia,” Maka Bochorishvili, a ruling party member who heads the parliamentary EU integration committee, told The Associated Press.

She argued that the bill should help make the country “stable and peaceful” and rejected the opposition's labeling of it as “the Russian law” as unfair.

“I do believe that if there is proper understanding of the objective of this law, nobody would prove why transparency can go against European integration,” Bochorishvili said, adding that she expects the country's Western partners “to have better understanding of the necessity of this legislation for Georgia.”

Zourabichvili vetoed the law on May 18 after it was passed in parliament by deputies from the Georgian Dream and its allies. That bloc has sufficient votes in parliament to override the veto.

Large protests have repeatedly gripped the capital, Tbilisi, as the measure made its way through parliament.

On Sunday, Zourabichvili and Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze assailed each other in speeches at a ceremony marking Georgia's Independence Day.

“As the specter of Russia looms over us, partnership and rapprochement with Europe are the true path to preserving and strengthening our independence and peace. Those who sabotage and undermine this path trample upon and damage the peaceful and secure future of our country, hindering the path towards becoming a full member of the free and democratic world,” Zourabichvili said.

Kobakhidze shot back, accusing Zourabichvili of betraying the country.

“It was the unity and reasonable steps of the people and their elected government that gave us the opportunity to maintain peace in the country for the past two years despite existential threats and multiple betrayals, including the betrayal of the president of Georgia.” he said.

The European Union’s foreign policy arm has said that adoption of the law "negatively impacts Georgia’s progress on the EU path.” Critics say it may have been driven by Russia to thwart Georgia’s chances of further integrating with the West.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday announced that travel sanctions would be imposed on Georgian officials “who are responsible for or complicit in undermining democracy in Georgia.”

He added that “it remains our hope that Georgia’s leaders will reconsider the draft law and take steps to move forward with their nation’s democratic and Euro-Atlantic aspirations.”

Sophiko Megrelidze, The Associated Press