Georgia’s Parliament voted Wednesday to advance deeply contentious legislation aimed at cracking down on “foreign agents” — an echo of a similar law in Russia that has been used to crush political dissent.

In Georgia, the bill has sparked huge street protests and drawn condemnation, including from President Salome Zourabichvili, who is not a member of the Georgian Dream political party, which controls Parliament and the government.

Zourabichvili and other critics say the bill is itself an instrument of foreign interference — backed by Russia and intended to undermine Georgia’s bid to join the European Union.

On Tuesday evening, as some protesters clashed with police in the streets of the capital, Tbilisi, Zourabichvili said the bill was evidence of Russian meddling.

“Insistence of the authorities to push through this law against the will of the population and despite partners protest is a direct provocation — a Russian strategy of destabilization,” Zourabichvili posted on X.

Zourabichvili has pledged to veto the law, but Georgian Dream controls enough votes that it could override her.

On Wednesday, 83 members of Parliament — all representatives of Georgian Dream — voted to advance the bill, which will now go to a second reading.

If adopted, the foreign agents law would require nongovernmental groups and independent media outlets to register as “agents of foreign influence.” It would apply to organizations, activist groups and media outlets that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad.

A similar registration requirement in Russia’s law led to the persecution of political opposition figures and the closure of numerous news organizations and human rights groups, including Memorial, which shared the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize.

The Georgian government has argued that its legislation is needed to prevent foreign influence in Georgian politics.

But the bill has long fueled fears that the government, under the guiding hand of the Moscow-friendly oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, a former prime minister and de facto leader of Georgian Dream, is sliding back into Russia’s orbit and could scuttle the country’s plans to join the European Union.

Georgia was granted official E.U. candidate status last year, but there are concerns in Brussels over democratic backsliding. A recent European Union report warned Tbilisi that it urgently needed to tackle disinformation and foreign interference, rein in its security services and strengthen human rights protections.

An attempt to pass the foreign agent legislation last year set off three days of giant, violent street protests in Tbilisi, and the bill was shelved.

This month, however, Georgian Dream announced it would reintroduce the bill. Parliament’s legal affairs committee endorsed it, clearing the way for the bill to be submitted for a first vote.

On Tuesday, dozens of protesters were detained during violent clashes with police. Videos circulating online showed riot police trying to clear demonstrators from the area around the Parliament building, using tear gas and water cannons.

In a vivid display of the divisiveness, a fistfight broke out on the floor of Parliament on Monday, after Mamuka Mdinaradze, the parliamentary leader of Georgian Dream, took the floor to speak about the bill and was then punched in the face by an opposition member, Aleko Elisashvili, setting off a wider brawl.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied Wednesday that Russia had anything to do with the Georgian legislation. The proposed bill, Peskov told reporters, “cannot be linked to Russia’s influence, as the Georgian opposition is claiming,” and that “countries in general do everything to protect themselves from foreign influence on domestic politics.”

Rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have denounced the foreign agents law, saying it would curtail basic freedoms. Those who violate the law could face onerous inspections and potentially years in prison.

The legislation, Human Rights Watch warned, is “incompatible with international human rights law and standards that protect the rights to freedom of expression and association.”

Video showed a brawl break out in Georgia’s legislature in Tbilisi on April 15 during debate over a controversial “foreign agent” bill. (Video: The Washington Post)

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