Georgia to push ahead with foreign agent bill despite 'misled' protesters, PM says

Georgian Prime Minister Kobakhidze visits Berlin

TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze said on Friday that the government would push ahead with the bill on "foreign agents" despite opposition from what he cast as "misled" youngsters who feel resentment towards Russia.

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

Georgia's envoy to France resigned in protest over the bill on Thursday, becoming the first senior official to do so.

The government says the law - which has been heavily criticized by the European Union and the United States - 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.

In an open letter addressed to the "sincere young people" of Georgia and published to his Facebook page, Kobakhidze suggested that the bill's protesters feel "obligated to harbour resentment towards all things Russian" and "mistakenly believe" that the Georgian draft is akin to similar legislation in Russia that has been used to crack down on dissent.

"We will heed the wishes of over 60 percent of the Georgian voters who firmly and thoughtfully support transparency and, by extension, envision a peaceful future for Georgia," Kobakhidze said.

"Their collective wisdom and discernment reflect the aspirations of the majority and will guide our actions accordingly," he said.

Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, has said the law is necessary to stop the West trying to use Georgian as "cannon fodder" in a confrontation with Russia.

The Kremlin has denied any association with the Georgian bill.

Georgia has come under criticism from Western countries over its treatment of protesters at near-nightly rallies over the past month, where police have deployed water cannon, tear gas and stun grenades to disperse crowds.

Three members of Georgian opposition parties were violently attacked by groups of unidentified men overnight, Georgian media reported on Friday.

"We are aware of increased reports of harassment and physical assault of civil society and opposition activists and journalists. We condemn this and we call for a full independent and timely investigation", U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said on Thursday.

(Reporting and writing by Lucy Papachristou; editing by Guy Faulconbridge)