Georgian police crack down on 'foreign agent' bill protesters with water cannon, tear gas

By Felix Light

TBILISI (Reuters) -Georgian security forces used water cannon, tear gas and stun grenades against protesters outside parliament late on Tuesday, sharply escalating a crackdown after lawmakers debated a "foreign agents" bill which is viewed by the opposition and Western nations as authoritarian and Russian-inspired.

Reuters eyewitnesses saw some police officers physically attack protesters, who threw eggs and bottles at them, before using tear gas, water cannon and stun grenades to force demonstrators from the area outside the Soviet-built parliament building.

Levan Khabeishvili, the leader of Georgia's largest opposition party, the United National Movement, posted a picture on X with his face bloodied and sporting a black eye. A party official told Reuters Khabeishvili was beaten by police after disappearing from central Tbilisi.

After being dispersed from parliament, around two thousand protesters continued to block Tbilisi's main Rustaveli Avenue, barricading it with cafe tables and rubbish bins. Some shouted "Slaves" and "Russians" at police.

Earlier, riot police used pepper spray and batons to clear some protesters who were trying to prevent lawmakers from leaving the back entrance of parliament.

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, an avowed foe of the government whose powers are mostly ceremonial, said in a post on X the crackdown had been "totally unwarranted, unprovoked and out of proportion," and that the protests had been peaceful.

The bill has heightened divisions in the deeply polarised southern Caucasus country, setting the ruling Georgian Dream party against a protest movement backed by opposition groups, civil society, celebrities and the figurehead president.

Parliament, which is controlled by the Georgian Dream and its allies, is likely to approve the bill, which must pass two more readings before becoming law. Lawmakers ended Tuesday's session without a vote and the debate will resume on Wednesday.

The bill would require organisations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as "foreign agents".

Georgian critics have labelled the bill "the Russian law", comparing it to Moscow's "foreign agent" legislation, which has been used to crack down on dissent there.

Russia is disliked by many Georgians for its support of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia lost a brief war with Russia in 2008.

The United States, Britain and the European Union, which granted Georgia candidate status in December, have criticised the bill. EU officials have said it could halt Georgia's progress towards integration with the bloc.


Tina Khidasheli, who served as Georgian defence minister in a Georgian Dream-led government in 2015-2016, attended Tuesday's protest against her former government colleagues and said she expected the demonstrators to win eventually.

"The government is just prolonging the inevitable. We might have serious problems, but at the end of the day, the people will go home with victory," she told Reuters.

Thousands of anti-government demonstrators have shut down Tbilisi's central streets on a nightly basis since parliament approved the bill's first reading on April 17.

On Monday, a government-organised rally in support of the bill was attended by tens of thousands of people, many of whom had been bussed in from provincial towns by the ruling party.

At that rally, former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire who founded Georgian Dream, harshly criticised the West and hinted at a post-election crackdown on the opposition.

Ivanishvili told attendees that a "global party of war" had hijacked the EU and NATO and that it was bent on using those institutions to undermine Georgian sovereignty.

Ivanishvili, who says he wants Georgia to join the EU, said the foreign agent law would bolster national sovereignty, and he suggested that the country's pro-Western opposition was controlled by foreign intelligence services via grants to NGOs.

He added that after elections due by October, Georgia's opposition, which is dominated by the United National Movement party of former President Mikheil Saakashvili, would face "the harsh political and legal judgment it deserves".

(Reporting by Felix Light, additional reporting by Gleb Stolyarov; Editing by Timothy Heritage, Gareth Jones, Alistair Bell, Daniel Wallis and Lincoln Feast.)