EU official says remarks to Georgian PM on Slovak assassination attempt ‘taken out of context’

By Thomson Reuters May 23, 2024 | 4:25 PM

By Felix Light and Andrew Gray

TBILISI/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – A senior European Union official expressed regret on Thursday after warning Georgia’s prime minister that polarisation over a contentious “foreign agent” law could create a situation akin to the recent assassination attempt on Slovakia’s leader.

Oliver Varhelyi, EU commissioner for neighbourhood policy and enlargement, said his comments on the attack on Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico were taken out of context.

Earlier, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze was quoted as saying that an EU official had reminded him of the assassination attempt and warned him to “be very careful”.

The implication was that the European Union was using scare tactics to increase pressure on Tbilisi to drop the law.

Varhelyi said in a statement he wanted to tell Kobakhidze not to inflame passions and the assassination attempt in Slovaka “was made as an example and as a reference to where such high level of polarisation can lead in a society even in Europe”.

“I regret that one part of my phone call was not just fully taken out of context, but was also presented to the public in a way which could give rise to a complete misinterpretation of the originally intended aim of my phone call,” Varhelyi said.

Georgia’s Interpress news agency cited Kobakhidze as saying that an unnamed European commissioner told him in a phone call: “Look what happened to Fico, and you should be very careful”.

Fico, a Eurosceptic populist, was shot four times at point-blank range on May 15. Slovak police arrested a 71-year-old suspect who said he had wanted to hurt Fico because he disagreed with government policies.

Georgia’s government is at odds with both the EU and the United States over the foreign agents law passed by parliament this month. It would require organisations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as agents of foreign influence or face punitive fines.

The issue has sparked huge protests in Georgia and called its longstanding pro-Western foreign policy into question.

President Salome Zourabichvili has vetoed the bill, but the ruling Georgian Dream party has the numbers in parliament to override her veto in a vote next week.

Georgian Dream, which says it still wants to join both the EU and NATO, maintains that the law is necessary to protect Georgian sovereignty and to combat the efforts of a shadowy “global party of war” to pit the country against Russia, which defeated it in a five-day war in 2008.

Critics say the bill was itself inspired by a Russian law used against Kremlin opponents. The protests are some of the largest since Georgia won independence from Moscow in 1991.

(Reporting by Felix Light and by Andrew Gray in Brussels; Editing by Mark Trevelyan, Ron Popeski and Cynthia Osterman)