Why did bill to stem ‘foreign influence’ trigger protests in Georgia over country’s media freedom?

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TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Georgia has been engulfed by huge protests triggered by a proposed law that critics see as a threat to media freedom and the country’s aspirations to join the European Union.

Here is a look at the bill and the protests it has ignited:

FORMER SOVIET REPUBLIC OF GEORGIA SEES RULING PARTY CAVE TO MASSIVE STREET PROTESTS AS IT SEEKS CLOSER EU TIES

WHAT IS THE NEW BILL?

The bill would require media and nongovernmental organizations and other nonprofits to register as “pursuing the interests of a foreign power” if they receive more than 20% of funding from abroad.

The legislature approved a second reading of the bill Wednesday, and the third and final reading is expected later this month.

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The proposed legislation is nearly identical to the one that the governing Georgian Dream party was pressured to withdraw last year after street protests.

WHAT DO THE BILL’S SUPPORTERS AND OPPONENTS SAY?

The governing party says the bill is necessary to stem what it deems as harmful foreign influence over the country’s political scene and to prevent unidentified foreign actors from trying to destabilize the country’s political scene.

The opposition denounces the bill as “the Russian law” because Moscow uses similar legislation to stigmatize independent news media and organizations critical of the Kremlin. Opponents of the bill say the fact that it is now before parliament is a sign of Moscow’s purported influence over Georgia. They fear it will become an impediment to the country’s long-sought prospects of joining the European Union.

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, who is increasingly at odds with the governing party, has vowed to veto the law, but Georgian Dream has a majority sufficient to override a presidential veto.

WHAT IS THE STATE OF RUSSIA-GEORGIA TIES?

Russia-Georgia relations have been strained and turbulent since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

In August 2008, Russia fought a brief war with Georgia, which had made a botched attempt to regain control over the breakaway province of South Ossetia. Moscow then recognized South Ossetia and another separatist province, Abkhazia, as independent states and beefed up its military presence there. Most of the world considers both breakaway regions to be parts of Georgia, a former Soviet republic.

Tbilisi has ruptured diplomatic ties with Moscow, and the separatist regions’ status remains a key irritant, even as Russia-Georgia relations have improved in recent years.

The opposition United National Movement accuses Georgian Dream, which was founded by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire who made his fortune in Russia, of serving Moscow’s interests — an accusation the governing party vehemently denies.

HOW DID THE PROTESTS GO?

For several successive days, thousands of demonstrators besieged the parliament building in a bid to block the bill’s passage and scuffled with police.

Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds. Over 60 protesters have been arrested and several people have been injured. Levan Khabeishvili, chairman of the United National Movement, was among those injured.

On Thursday, parliament canceled its scheduled session, saying the move was because of damage to the building during Wednesday’s protests.

WHAT IS THE EU’S POSITION?

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EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has described the parliament’s move as “a very concerning development” and warned that “final adoption of this legislation would negatively impact Georgia’s progress on its EU path.”

“This law is not in line with EU core norms and values,” Borrell said in a statement last month. “The proposed legislation would limit the capacity of civil society and media organizations to operate freely, could limit freedom of expression and unfairly stigmatize organizations that deliver benefits to the citizens of Georgia.”

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