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Georgia president holds talks on 'how to save' the country as U.S., EU and NATO decry 'Russian law'

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Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili delivers a speech during an gathering celebrating Europe Day outside her residence in Tbilisi on May 9, 2024. (Photo by Vano SHLAMOV / AFP) (Photo by VANO SHLAMOV/AFP via Getty Images)

Vano Shlamov | Afp | Getty Images

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili on Wednesday held talks with European ministers to urgently discuss "how to save" the country, shortly after lawmakers adopted a deeply divisive Russia-style foreign influence bill.

The U.S., European Union, NATO and the United Nations have all issued statements expressing concern about Georgia's new legislation, which opposition lawmakers have denounced as the "Russian law."

The "foreign agents" bill calls for media outlets, nonprofits and other nongovernmental organizations in the country to register as "pursuing the interests of a foreign power" if they receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad.

Russia, which occupies about 20% of Georgia's internationally recognized territory, has used similar legislation to crack down on independent news media and activists critical of the Kremlin.

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of the capital Tbilisi in recent weeks to voice their opposition to the law, which critics say could jeopardize Georgia's chances of joining the EU and push the country back into Russia's orbit.

Georgian lawmakers on Tuesday approved the legislation, with 84 members of the country's 150-member law-making body voting in favor.

Flanked by visiting foreign ministers from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Iceland, Zourabichvili said from Tbilisi on Wednesday that the country had always fought for independence, and that it would "never go back into Russian hands."

"On the agenda today is the following issue: how to save Georgia," Zourabichvili said, according to a translation.

People with Georgian and European Union (EU) flags attend a gathering celebrating Europe Day outside President Salome Zurabishvili's residence in Tbilisi on May 9, 2024.

Vano Shlamov | Afp | Getty Images

Georgia's president, a critic of the ruling Georgian Dream government, has said she intends to veto the bill. However, the Parliament can override her veto by holding an additional vote.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze has defended the adoption of the foreign influence law, saying it will create "strong guarantees" that ensure long-lasting peace in the country.

"It is impossible for anyone to be against transparency who has read this law and understands that transparency is one of the key European values," Kobakhidze said Tuesday.

West urges Georgia 'to change course'

Georgia, which declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, was granted EU candidate status in December and has traditionally kept warm relations with the West.

The adoption of the so-called Russian law, which still needs to be enacted, has prompted a flurry of warnings from the U.S., EU and NATO.

"The adoption of this law negatively impacts Georgia's progress on the EU path," European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement Wednesday.

"The choice on the way forward is in Georgia's hands. We urge the Georgian authorities to withdraw the law, uphold their commitment to the EU path and advance the necessary reforms detailed in the 9 steps. The EU stands ready to continue supporting Georgians working towards a European future," he added.

The Financial Times reported Wednesday, citing three unnamed EU officials, that the bloc would freeze Georgia's membership bid if the country enacts the foreign influence bill. A vote to enact the legislation is expected in the coming weeks.

CNBC could not independently verify the report. A spokesperson for the EU has been approached for comment.

People gather at Shota Rustaveli Street to stage protest against 'transparency of foreign influence' bill after approval in Tbilisi, Georgia on May 14, 2024.

Anadolu | Anadolu | Getty Images

The U.S. on Tuesday said it was "deeply troubled" by Georgia's decision to pass the "Kremlin-style 'foreign agents' legislation."

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a briefing that the law would compel the U.S. to "fundamentally reassess" its relationship with Georgia.

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"The Georgian government's decision to pass legislation on so-called 'foreign agents' is a step in the wrong direction and takes Georgia further away from European and Euro-Atlantic integration," NATO spokesperson Farah Dakhlallah said in a statement Wednesday.

"We urge #Georgia to change course and to respect the right to peaceful protest," Dakhlallah said via social media platform X.

The United Nations in Georgia said in a statement Tuesday that it "regrets" Georgia's approval of the foreign influence bill, adding that it poses "threats to freedoms of expression and association."

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