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Georgia’s leader says a divisive media bill passed by lawmakers is unacceptable and she’ll veto it

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TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — A controversial media bill passed this week by Georgia’s parliament is “unacceptable” and will be vetoed, President Salome Zourabichvili said Thursday, reaffirming her opposition to a measure that critics describe as a threat to free speech.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Zourabichvili harshly criticized the ruling Georgian Dream party for pushing the bill that also is widely seen setting back Georgia’s aspirations to join the European Union.

The bill, passed Tuesday, requires media, nongovernmental organizations and other nonprofit groups to register as “pursuing the interests of a foreign power” if they receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad. The government says the bill is needed to stem what it deems to be harmful foreign actors trying to destabilize the South Caucasus nation of 3.7 million.

“It’s unacceptable because it reflects a turn of the Georgian attitudes towards the civil society, towards the media and towards the recommendations of the European Commission that are not consistent with what is our declared policy of going towards a European integration,” Zourabichvili told the AP.

She reaffirmed her intention to veto it because it “goes directly against the spirit or the letter of EU recommendations.”

Zourabichvili is increasingly at odds with the Georgian Dream party, which has a majority sufficient to override her veto. She has until May 28 — 14 days after its passage — to act.

She emphasized it’s her “duty under the constitution to make everything in my capacity possible to support the European integration and to consolidate it.”

Huge crowds of protesters have blocked streets in the capital of Tbilisi and milled angrily outside the parliament building after lawmakers approved the measure 84-30 despite strong criticism from the U.S and the EU.

“The authorities are not doing what the country expects, and the country is reacting because the country wants Europe and wants not to lose the possibility at the end of the year of seeing the opening of these accession negotiations,” Zourabichvili said.

The bill is nearly identical to one that the Georgian Dream party was pressured to withdraw last year after street protests. Renewed demonstrations have rocked Georgia for weeks, with demonstrators scuffling with police, who used tear gas and water cannons to disperse them.

The opposition has denounced the bill as “the Russian law” because Moscow uses similar legislation to crack down on independent news media, nonprofits and activists critical of the Kremlin.

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

Zourabichvili emphasized that after Georgia received the status of a candidate last fall to join the EU, the government should have focused on passing the necessary laws to qualify for the launch of accession talks at the end of the year.

“The parliament should be working day and night to satisfy the recommendations that we have on the table on the justice reform, on the corruption agency’s independence and things like that,” she told AP. “And instead of that, instead of doing what is expected from us, the parliament is working on a law that was rejected last year that all our partners, European partners, have said that it’s not consistent with the European values and the European objectives.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the U.S. was “deeply troubled” by the legislation, which she said “runs counter to democratic values and would move Georgia further away from the values of the European Union. And let’s not forget also NATO.” Enacting it “will compel us to fundamentally reassess our relationship with Georgia,” she added.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Affairs James O’Brien met Tuesday with Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze and told journalists “if the law goes forward out of conformity with EU norms, and there’s undermining of democracy here and there’s violence against peaceful protesters, then we will see restrictions coming from the United States.”

The opposition United National Movement accuses Georgian Dream of trying to drag Georgia into Russia’s sphere of influence — allegations it rejects. Georgian Dream was founded by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a former prime minister and billionaire who made his fortune in Russia.

Zourabichvili said it’s hard to say whether the bill was the ruling party’s initiative or if Moscow had played any role in its passage, but she emphasized that the Kremlin is unhappy with Georgia’s pro-Western aspirations.

“It’s clear that Moscow is not seeing with lots of appreciation this accelerated pace of Georgia towards the European Union,” she said.

By SOPHIKO MEGRELIDZE
Associated Press

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