Georgia’s president vetoes media law that has provoked weeks of protests

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Georgia’s president on Saturday vetoed the so-called “Russian law” targeting the media that sparked weeks of mass protests.

The law would require media outlets and NGOs to register as “pursuing the interests of a foreign power” if they receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad. Critics of the bill say it closely resembles legislation used by the Kremlin to silence opponents and will obstruct Georgia’s EU bid.

President Salomé Zourabichviliincreasingly at odds with Georgia’s ruling party, said on Saturday that the law contradicted the Georgian Constitution and “all European standards”, and added that it “must be abolished”.

The ruling Georgian Dream party has enough of a majority to override Zourabichvili’s veto, and is widely expected to do so in the coming days.

The Georgian government insists the law aims to promote transparency and curb what it sees as harmful foreign influence in the country of 3.7 million people. Many Georgian journalists and activists fiercely dispute this characterization, saying they are already subject to auditing and oversight requirements. They say the real aim of the law is to stigmatize them and restrict debate in the run-up to the legislative elections scheduled for October.

The EU offered Georgia candidate status last December, while specifying that Tbilisi must implement key policy recommendations for its candidacy to progress. The recommendations concern, among other areas, elections which must remain free and fair, the fight against disinformation “against the EU and its values” and safeguarding the independence of public institutions such as the central bank and anti-EU bodies. -corruption.

The opposition United National Movement and many protesters accuse the Georgian Dream of trying to derail the European integration process and drag Georgia into Russia’s sphere of influence – allegations that the ruling party vehemently rejects. Georgian Dream was founded by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a former prime minister and billionaire who made his fortune in Russia.

The bill is almost identical to one the party was pressured to withdraw last year after street protests. New protests have rocked Georgia for weeks, with demonstrators clashing with police, who used tear gas and water cannons to disperse them. Earlier this month, an opposition lawmaker spoke in Parliament with a bandaged face and visible bruises and cuts. His allies said he was assaulted by police during the protests.

EU officials and Western leaders have repeatedly expressed concerns about the law, as well as Tbilisi’s heavy-handed response to dissent. The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, issued a statement on Wednesday in support of the Georgian protesters and to condemn what he described as a wave of violence against opposition politicians, activists, journalists and their families.

European Council President Charles Michel said Tuesday that if Georgians “want to join the EU, they must respect the fundamental principles of the rule of law and democratic principles.”

Zourabichvili told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday that it was difficult to say whether the bill was a Georgian Dream initiative or whether Moscow played a role in its passage, but she stressed that the Kremlin does not was not satisfied with Georgia’s pro-Western aspirations.

“It is clear that Moscow does not view Georgia’s accelerated pace towards the European Union with much appreciation,” she said.

Relations between Russia and Georgia have been tense and turbulent since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and Georgia’s departure from its role as a Soviet republic.

In 2008, Russia fought a brief war against Georgia, which had tried unsuccessfully to regain control of the breakaway province of South Ossetia. Moscow then recognized South Ossetia and another breakaway province, Abkhazia, as independent states and strengthened its military presence there. Most countries around the world consider these two regions to be part of Georgia..

Tbilisi has severed diplomatic relations with Moscow and the status of the regions remains a major irritant although relations between Russia and Georgia have improved during the last years.

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