Georgia to lift emergency rule in two days

Georgia will lift its state of emergency in two days, Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze said on Wednesday, but a court order looked set to keep the main opposition television station off the air.Georgia’s close ally the United States had told Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to end the emergency rule he imposed last Wednesday after police crushed street protests and shut down opposition television stations.

Saakashvili, facing his worst political crisis since coming to power in 2003, agreed last week to hold early presidential elections in January to calm mass protests accusing him of corruption and authoritarianism.

“I am authorized to declare on behalf of the Georgian government that emergency rule will be lifted on November 16 in all the country’s territory,” Burjanadze told a news briefing.

Washington’s top emissary to the region, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, welcomed the move as a “very important step” towards restoring the faith of Georgian voters in the country’s democratic processes.

The lifting of the state of emergency should in theory allow opposition media to broadcast freely again.

But Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which controls Imedi, the country’s main opposition television station, said it had been informed on Wednesday that Imedi’s license had been suspended and all its equipment put “under arrest” by court order.

Martin Pompadur, chairman of News Corp Europe, said Georgian authorities had justified the move by saying Imedi was “somehow involved”, along with the station’s founder and part owner Badri Patarkatsishvili, of plotting a Russian-backed coup.

“To allege that News Corp is involved in a Russian-backed coup in Georgia is beyond ludicrous,” Pompadur said. “We are immediately appealing this decision in the Georgian courts.”

Saakashvili had accused former Soviet master Russia of sponsoring the opposition and fomenting unrest in his Caucasus nation of 5 million. Russia and the Georgian opposition dismissed the allegation and Western diplomats said they had seen no evidence to support it.

Saakashvili’s response to the opposition protests has left his credentials as a champion of democracy looking tattered, and dismayed his Western allies.

A NATO diplomat told Reuters in Brussels that the president’s actions had set back Georgia’s ambitions of joining the alliance. “He has shot himself in the foot,” said the diplomat.

Bryza said Washington in principle supported NATO enlargement to any European country fulfilling NATO criteria. But he added that the “jury is out” on whether Georgia’s democratic reform criteria were good enough for NATO membership.

“January 5 (the date of the presidential election) will be when we know better whether or not Georgia is fulfilling all of those democracy requirements,” he said.

Several opposition leaders, including flamboyant billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili, are expected to fight Saakashvili in the election. Splits in the opposition and its lack of access to broadcasters are the main obstacles to an effective challenge.

Burjanadze’s spokeswoman said that although emergency rule would be lifted on November 16, bans on public meetings and independent media would be lifted a day later.

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