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TBILISI, GEORGIA —Georgia's parliament on Tuesday gave its initial backing to a controversial law on "foreign agents" backed by the ruling party, which critics have said represents an authoritarian shift in the South Caucasus country.
The draft law would require any organizations receiving more than 20% of their funding from overseas to register as "foreign agents" or face substantial fines. Critics have said it is reminiscent of a 2012 Russian law that has since been used to crack down on civil society.
The law passed its so-called first parliamentary reading on Tuesday comfortably, Georgian media outlets reported.
Hundreds of protesters opposing the bill gathered outside the parliament building in central Tbilisi, some carrying European Union and U.S. flags. Amid a heavy police presence, many shouted: "No to the Russian law."
Speaking in Berlin earlier on Tuesday, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Garibashvili announced his support for the law, saying the proposed provisions on foreign agents met "European and global standards."
"The future of our country doesn't belong to and will not belong to foreign agents and servants of foreign countries," he said.
The ruling Georgian Dream party, which says it wants Georgia to join the European Union, announced its support for the foreign agent law last month. It has accused critics of the bill of opposing the Georgian Orthodox Church, one of the country's most respected and influential institutions.
On Monday, a committee hearing on the law ended in a physical brawl in parliament, as the chairman of the legislature's legal affairs committee appeared to physically strike the leader of the opposition United National Movement, which opposes the bill.
President Salome Zourabichvili, who was elected as a Georgian Dream candidate, has said she will veto the bill, which she says endangers Georgia's hopes of joining the EU. Parliament can override her veto.
More than 60 civil society organizations and media outlets have said they will not comply with the bill if it is signed into law.
Georgia's government has in recent years faced criticism from observers, who say the country is drifting towards authoritarianism. In June, the EU declined to grant Georgia candidate status alongside Moldova and Ukraine, citing stalled political and judicial reforms.