Police in the Georgian capital Tbilisi used tear gas, water cannon and stun grenades late on Wednesday as they moved to break up the second straight day of protests against a “foreign agents” law which critics say signals an authoritarian shift.
Hundreds of police, many carrying riot shields, converged on streets around the parliament building in a bid to disperse the protesters. Unlike violent clashes on Tuesday night, there were no signs of demonstrators throwing petrol bombs or stones at police officers.
Clouds of tear gas billowed down Tbilisi's central Rustaveli Avenue, where parliament is located, forcing at least some of the thousands of demonstrators to move away.
A few dozen people had earlier broken through a metal barrier erected some distance from the parliament but showed no signs of trying to enter the building. Protesters smashed at least one window.
The interior ministry said 77 people had been detained after the protests on Tuesday which started when legislators approved a first reading of the law, which requires any organisations receiving more than 20 per cent of their funding from overseas to register as “foreign agents” or face substantial fines.
The ruling Georgian Dream party say it is modelled on US legislation dating from the 1930s. Critics, including President Salome Zourabichvili, say it is reminiscent of a Russian law the Kremlin has used extensively to crack down on dissent and could harm Georgia’s chances of European Union membership.
The EU last year rebuffed Tbilisi's attempts to become a candidate for membership, saying it needed to speed up changes in areas such as the rule of law, the independence of justice and media freedom.
Protests restarted on Wednesday afternoon with a march down Rustaveli Avenue to mark International Women’s Day, which is a public holiday.
“Now is [a] time when we are under direct attack from the government,” said 24-year-old journalist Mikheil Gvadzabia. “It’s very clear that more and more people realise that this is scary and they should fight for their future.”
Thousands gathered in front of parliament as evening set in, carrying Georgian and European Union flags and shouting “No to the Russian law” and blocking traffic.
“We cannot let our country become pro-Russian or a Russian state, or undemocratic. We don’t have any other choice: Georgia is either democratic or there is no Georgia. We will win,” said 33-year-old software engineer Vakhtang Berikashvili.
Footage of smaller protests in the Black Sea resort city of Batumi, Georgia's second largest, were also shared online.
The issue has deepened a rift between Georgian Dream, which leads the government and has a parliamentary majority, and Ms Zourabichvili, a pro-European who has moved away from the party since being elected with its support in 2018.
She backed the protesters, saying on Tuesday that politicians who voted for the draft reading had violated the constitution. She also pledged to veto the bill if it reached her desk, though parliament can override her.
Critics say Georgian Dream is too close to Russia and has taken the country in a more repressive direction in recent years. Georgian society is strongly anti-Moscow following years of conflict over the status of two Russian-backed breakaway regions, which flared into a short war in 2008.
Georgian Dream Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze on Wednesday said the law would help root out those working against the interests of the country and the powerful Georgian Orthodox Church. He criticised Georgia’s “radical opposition” for stirring up protesters to commit “unprecedented violence” during Tuesday’s rallies, according to Georgian news agencies. - Reuters