(Adds NATO comments, paragraphs 7-9)
By David Brunnstrom
BRUSSELS, Dec 6 (Reuters) - The European Union gave Georgia’s pro-Western government a firm assurance of its support on Thursday despite international dismay at its suppression of opposition protests last month.
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner chided Tbilisi for a “somewhat overdone” reaction to the protests that included the muzzling of an opposition television station, but welcomed subsequent steps to bolster democracy.
“We know Georgia is a young democracy,” Ferrero-Waldner told a joint news conference with Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze after their talks.
“A lot still remains to be done,” she said. “But ... we will go on trying to keep at the side of Georgia, strengthening the institutions, helping to set up what is necessary,” she said, suggesting the EU could aid welfare reforms after the elections.
Ferrero-Waldner stressed the need to restore media freedoms but hailed the decision to lift a state of emergency and the former Soviet republic’s willingness to allow international observation of a Jan. 5 presidential election.
She said Georgia’s parliament had taken “encouraging first steps” in creating a credible system of democratic checks and balances, with the introduction of an electoral code and the establishment of a public defenders office.
Gurgenidze visited NATO on Wednesday to seek future support for his country’s aspiration to join the 26-member Western military alliance in defiance of Moscow, which regards any such move as a show of hostility.
Alliance diplomats doubt that Tbilisi will be awarded a so-called “membership action plan” (MAP) — an antechamber on the way to membership — at a NATO summit in April but stressed that NATO supported its efforts to join in principle.
“Georgia has a clear Euro-Atlantic vocation,” said a NATO official. “NATO sees itself as a friend of Georgia.”
Georgian leader Mikhail Saakashvili called a snap January election after ordering riot police to force opposition protesters off the streets last month with tear gas and rubber bullets. Police also raided opposition television station Imedi, which Saakashvili accused of calling for a revolution.
Gurgenidze said on Wednesday a court had lifted a ban on Imedi and it would be back on air by the weekend. Georgia’s Western allies had said it should be allowed to resume broadcasting or the presidential vote would be unfair.
The station is part owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, and Badri Patarkatsishvili, an opposition leader who is seeking to run for the presidency.
Ferrero-Waldner stressed any independence move by the breakaway Serb province of Kosovo should not impact on the breakaway Georgian republics, despite Russian warnings that independence for Kosovo could set a precedent.
“We do hope also that Russia will understand that certainly on South Ossetia and Abkhazia, things should remain as they are. There should be territorial integrity of Georgia,” she said, adding: “We will certainly watch out.” (Writing and additional reporting by Mark John; Editing by Charles Dick)