Georgian envoy to France resigns over 'foreign agent' bill

Demonstrators hold a rally to protest against a bill on "foreign agents", in Tbilisi

By Felix Light

TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia's ambassador to France resigned on Thursday over his country's draft law on "foreign agents", becoming the first senior official to do so and saying it would draw the South Caucasus nation away from a path of integration with Europe.

The bill, which would require organisations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as agents of foreign influence, has sparked huge street protests in Georgia by demonstrators who see it as authoritarian and Russian-inspired.

"The current tensions and climate generated by the revived draft law in our relations with our foreign friends and partners make my mission...extremely difficult," the ambassador, Gotcha Javakhishvili, posted on social media.

He said that while he did not personally know any Georgian officials or diplomats who were "openly pro-Russian", he believed the draft law "may be a kind of tactic to achieve a certain goal".

"I no longer see my role and resources in this direction: the move towards Europe," he said.

Street protests erupted in Tbilisi in mid-April after the ruling Georgian Dream party announced plans to bring back the foreign agent bill, which it had abandoned last year after mass rallies.

Demonstrators have gathered almost nightly in Tblisi to show opposition to the bill and have been met by police firing water cannon, tear gas and stun grenades. Dozens of protesters have been arrested and over a dozen hospitalised.

The government says the law is needed in order to ensure that foreign funding of NGOs is transparent. Lawmakers are expected to begin debate on a third and final reading of the bill on Monday.

The interior ministry said on Thursday it had arrested six people for assaulting police officers and causing damage at previous protests.

The European Union has condemned the bill, saying its passage may endanger Georgia's bid to join the bloc.

The EU's special representative for the South Caucasus said on Thursday that his "heart aches" over the situation in Georgia.

"Our relationship is supposed to be based on shared values and on support for a strong civil society where lists of 'enemies of the people' and anonymous phone calls have no place", Tovio Klaar wrote on X.

A string of Georgian activists opposing the bill have reported being beaten by gangs of unknown men on the streets, Georgian media said this week.

Unverified photographs circulating on social media show flyers denouncing protesters as "enemies of the people" papered on the walls of buildings around Tbilisi.

Georgian officials have denied involvement.

The demonstrations subsided over the Orthodox Easter holidays in the last week but activists have called for a fresh wave of rallies starting on Saturday.

(This story has been corrected to say that the parliament will begin debates on the bill's reading on Monday, not vote on it, in the third bullet point and paragraph 8)

(Reporting by Lucy Papachristou in London and Lidia Kelly in Melbourne; Writing by Lucy Papachristou; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Frances Kerry)