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    Georgian ex-foreign minister says country needs free media

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    LONDON, 3 December (RIA Novosti, Pavel Andreev) - Former Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili said during a video linkup with Tbilisi that the foreign media must to return to Georgia to break the government monopoly on information.

    The opposition's prospective candidate for prime minister described the ongoing election campaign as the worst she has encountered. Opposition activists are being intimidated and the population is being subjected to government pressure. The leadership has cracked down on all free media, preventing the opposition from putting its message across.

    Anti-Saakashvili forces cannot do much other than appeal to the people and seek foreign support. Zurabishvili, a French citizen, said that during her recent visits to Paris, Brussels, London and Berlin, European officials expressed "astonishment" at the way the current Tbilisi government has "deceived" its Western partners.

    The prominent opposition leader suggested, however, that there should be more influence from foreign states on the election campaign. International observers as well as media, according to Zurabishvili, should flock to the country and destroy the information monopoly set up by President Mikhail Saakashvili.

    This would create the conditions for free and fair voting in the emergency presidential elections scheduled for January 5, 2008, and allow the opposition to take office.

    Zurabishvili also said the opposition will soon announce its agenda. She said the economy will have to be restored from "level zero". Despite substantial investment pouring into the budget in recent years, none of it has been released into the economy, and "probably ended up in somebody's pockets", she said.

    Resolving the situations in conflict zones will be another hard task if the opposition assumes power. "The situation there is very difficult, because people had high hopes from the government", said Zurabishvili. However, she stressed that a solution has to be found through peaceful means.

    A Former French and Georgian senior diplomat, she reiterated the opposition's intent to stick to "the choice of the people to join the EU and NATO", but said plans to hold a referendum on accession to NATO simultaneously with the January 5 presidential elections were untimely.

    Despite European and transatlantic aspirations, the opposition will also aim to "normalize" relations with Russia, which is regarded, according to Zurabishvili, as "a natural partner and neighbour". She blamed extremists on both sides for the current poor state of bilateral relations.

    Zurabishvili was brought into the government by President Saakashvili, and from March 2004 served as the first female foreign minister in the country's history. She played significant role in negotiating the withdrawal of Russian military bases from Georgia's territory. In October 2005, amid allegations of harassing parliament, Zurabishvili was fired and joined the opposition. In March 2006 she formed a new political party, Georgia's Way.

    Following mass rallies by the opposition, and the government's declaration of a state of emergency on November 7, the nine-party opposition coalition announced its candidate for the 5 January 2008 emergency presidential election, with Zurabishvili as their candidate for prime minister.

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