Brawl erupts in Georgia parliament over 'Russian-inspired' foreign agent law

TBILISI (Reuters) -Fistfights broke out among Georgian lawmakers on Monday as a parliamentary committee debated a bill on "foreign agents" which critics say is modelled on draconian legislation in neighbouring Russia.

Video from inside the parliament building in the capital Tbilisi showed a brief but violent brawl between lawmakers after the chairman of the chamber's legal affairs committee appeared to strike the leader of the United National Movement opposition party, which opposes the bill.

The governing Georgian Dream bloc last month announced that it supported the legislation, which still needs to pass other approval stages before it can become law.

The law would require organisations receiving more than 20% of their funding from overseas to register as "foreign agents" and submit to monitoring by the justice ministry, or else face hefty fines.

Critics have compared it to a 2012 Russian law, which has been steadily expanded since then and used to crack down on Russian civil society and independent media. They have cast the law as symbolic of an authoritarian shift in Georgia.

"The Russian legislation that now is proposed in parliament is against Georgia's national interests, against our European aspirations," said Irakli Pavlenishvili, a civil rights activist and opposition politician.

"The whole international community and Georgian community is agreed on this topic".

However, Givi Mikanadze, a Georgian Dream lawmaker, told national television: "Georgian society absolutely deserves to know which organisations are being financed, from which sources.

"We are talking about transparency and having an obligation (to the Georgian people)."

The ruling party says it remains committed to Georgia one day joining the European Union.

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili has said she will veto the bill, arguing that it would endanger Georgia's hopes of joining the EU and NATO. Parliament can override a presidential veto. Russia is strongly opposed to Georgia joining NATO.

Last month, more than 60 civil society organisations and media outlets said they would not comply with the new "foreign agent" legislation if it becomes law.

(Reporting by Felix LightEditing by Andrew Osborn and Gareth Jones)