Georgia ‘returning to the past’ with foreign agents law, says president

Georgia is “returning to the past” through the new foreign agents law, the president of the former Soviet state has said, as EU ministers urged the government to “take a way out”.

Speaking at a press conference with the foreign ministers of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Iceland, Salome Zurabishvili said the governing Georgian Dream party had diverted the country down a “very serious” road.

After 30 days of protests by hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, MPs voted on Tuesday by 84 to 30 to back the adoption of a “foreign influence” law.

Under the legislation, media or civil society groups in Georgia that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad will have to register as “organisations serving the interests of a foreign power”.

Washington’s assistant secretary of state, Jim O’Brien had spoken on Tuesday of the vote being a potential “turning point”, with the legislation holding the potential to be a tool to repress dissenting voices.

He had warned Georgia’s prime minister, Irakli Kobakhidze, that his government would lose hundreds of millions in military and economic aid if it became an “adversary and not a partner”.

Zurabishvili said the policy of Georgian governments since the non-violent Rose revolution against Soviet-style rule had been to take a “middle road” between the west and Russia.

Salome Zurabishvili delivers a speech celebrating Europe Day in Tbilisi on 9 May. She said the latest actions of the government had seen a shift and a ‘return to the former past’. Photograph: Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images

She said the latest actions of the government had seen a shift and a “return to the former past” but insisted that the protests on to the streets of Tbilisi proved that Georgians “will never return to Russian pressure”.

The European commission has said that the legislation is an obstacle to Georgia’s accession to the EU.

Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, said the Georgian prime minister should accept a presidential veto of the law, adding that mere amendments would not suffice.

He said: “It is still not too late. We have heard from the madame president that she plans to veto and this will offer him a way out, an opportunity for the government to withdraw this unfortunate legislative initiative altogether.”

He added: “There should be no illusions that prospective amendments to this law may make [it] ‘democracy or EU proof’. This law is not compatible with European choice. You cannot fix something that is fundamentally broken.”

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Kobakhidze had suggested on Tuesday that amendments could be on the cards once he had received further legal advice on the new law, including from the Venice commission, an advisory body to the human rights organisation, the Council of Europe.

Marija Pejčinović Burić, the Council of Europe’s secretary general, issued a statement on Wednesday condemning the law.

She said: “The adoption at the third reading of the draft law ‘on transparency of foreign influence’ by the Parliament of Georgia, without waiting for the opinion of the Venice Commission, is very disappointing and does not reflect the spirit of constructive dialogue.

“Regrettably, international partners’ concerns regarding the draft law’s incompatibility with European democratic and human rights standards were ignored, while the lack of genuine parliamentary deliberations is not in accordance with an inclusive democratic process.”

Despite the condemnation from Washington and many EU capitals, the bloc’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell is yet to make a statement on the passing of the legislation.

Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary blocked an initial draft with the support of the Slovakian government led by the populist Robert Fico who is seeking to introduce a similar piece of legislation on foreign influence.

The Guardian