March 8 (UPI) — Police in the Georgian capital Tbilisi appealed for calm Wednesday after protests against a new law requiring organizations with foreign ties to register with the authorities turned violent.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs said it arrested 66 people on charges of “minor hooliganism and disobedience” and arrested another individual for attacking a policeman.
Demonstrators blockaded the parliament building Tuesday and threw stones and blunt objects at the Ministry of Internal Affairs employees, set fire to the legislative building and damaged windows and protective barriers and lobbed Molotov cocktails at officers, the ministry said.
The ministry warned in a news release that any law-breaking would be met with an immediate response from police and called “on all citizens, organizers and participants of the rally to stop violent actions, observe the rule of law and follow the rightful requests of police.”
The protests erupted after a “transparency of foreign influence” bill requiring media outlets, NGOs and any organization with funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents” passed the first stage to becoming law.
Authorities are hoping to head off a second night of protests after police used water cannons and fired tear gas to break up a demonstration by tens of thousands of people protesting against the “Kremlin-inspired” law, which they fear is aimed at curtailing free speech.
The legislation which parallels tactics that Moscow has used to silence critics, particularly since its invasion of Ukraine, threatens to widen the divide between Georgians who are pro-Russia and those who want Georgia to join the EU.
The bill is backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party, but opposed by President Salome Zourabichvili who has pledged to veto it.
“This law — which no one needed — does not come out of nowhere. It is something dictated by Moscow,” Zourabichvili said. “The Georgia that sees its future in Europe will not allow anyone to take away this future,” she added.
Parliament has the power to overrule her veto.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell condemned the legislation calling it a “very bad development for Georgia and its people” and warning it could affect Georgia’s bid to join the EU.
“The law in its current form risks having a chilling effect on civil society and media organizations, with negative consequences for the many Georgians benefiting from their work,” he said. “This law is incompatible with EU values and standards. It goes against Georgia’s stated objective of joining the European Union, as supported by a large majority of Georgian citizens. Its final adoption may have serious repercussions on our relations.”
The EU urges Georgia to uphold its commitment to promote democracy, the rule of law and human rights, and the right of people to a peaceful protest, Borrell added.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price called the draft law an enormous setback that would “strike at some of the very rights that are central to the aspirations of the people of Georgia.”