Georgia's president, Mikhail Saakashvili, on Wednesday night declared a 15-day state of emergency following six days of violent clashes between riot police and protesters in the state capital of Tbilisi. The demonstrators were demanding the president resign, and the protests are seen as the most serious challenge to Saakashvili since he came to power in the peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution.
However, in an apparent response to criticism of his actions, president Saakashvili on Thursday announced special presidential elections for Jan. 5, reports The New York Times. A referendum would be held the same day for the timing of parliamentary elections, Saakashvili said.
Mr. Saakashvili's surprise announcement appeared to be an effort to bring a swift end to the domestic unrest and growing international condemnation over the clashes on Wednesday on the streets of Tbilisi, the country's capital.
The announcement effectively shaves nearly a year off his presidential term, and marks a sharp shift from his emphatic refusal to change election dates or compromise with opposition demands.
On Wednesday, authorities said the president had declared the emergency because of "an attempt at a state coup," reports German news site Deutsche Welle. The government also announced restrictions "on public gatherings and the media, closing all television networks except state-controlled stations."
The move came after a further day of running battles between riot police and demonstrators demanding the resignation of Saakashvili … The violence erupted when unarmed police attempted to disperse a rally on Rustaveli Avenue near parliament, in the center of the ancient city.
Accusing the president of corruption, political killings and failing to address widespread poverty in the country, the protestors are calling for early elections.
The riots erupted when police tried to disperse a small group of protesters gathered in front of the Georgian parliament building, reports Radio Free Europe. "Baton-wielding police moved in to evict the group of about 100 people, including about 10 hunger strikers," it reports.
That action led to scuffles, and several opposition activists were detained.
… But shortly after the area was cleared in the early-morning action, protesters and opposition leaders returned in the thousands to once again block the avenue.
Hundreds of riot police moved in, shouting warnings to protesters over speakerphones that "legal actions will be deployed against you" if they did not disperse. When protesters failed to heed the demand, police moved in.
Riot police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons, reports the Associated Press.
… The clash was captured live on Georgian and Russian television, which showed protesters with bandannas and surgical masks pelting police with rocks from a bridge.
More than 500 people sought medical assistance in the running clashes throughout the day, and nearly 100 remained hospitalized, the Health Ministry said.
Under Georgian Constitution, the emergency must be approved by parliament within two days, the AP said.
Protests continued even after the emergency declaration, suggests online magazine Civil Georgia, which reported on a small group of students protesting outside their local university in the seaside town of Batumi on Thursday. The magazine is published by the United Nations Association of Georgia, a nongovernmental organization.
"Students started to gather outside the university at about 11 am [local time]. Riot police were deployed immediately and used tear gas. Several students were beaten," Eter Turadze, the editor of the local newspaper Batumelebi said.
Civil Georgia also reported that Koba Davitashvili, leader of the opposition People's Party, "appeared at a news conference in his party headquarters in Tbilisi with a bruised face" Thursday, saying he was kidnapped and brutally beaten the day before. Davitashvili's disappearance on Nov. 7 had "sparked rumors" that he had been killed.
The Imedi television channel, the main opposition media outlet that was sold to Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation last week, was pulled off the air dramatically, reports the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Police units "burst into the building," and evening news announcers told viewers that police "were on their way … Then the screens went blank."
A large part of central Tbilisi remains cordoned off by police, the Institute reported.
The Georgian opposition, meanwhile, is drawing parallels with the events of April 9, 1989, when Soviet troops broke up a pro-independence rally in the centre of Tbilisi and 20 people, 18 of them women, were killed.
"The people wanted us to carry out a new revolution," said People's Party leader Koba Davitashvili. "We tried to keep the process peaceful. But Saakashvili, [government adviser Giga] Bokeria and people who do not belong in this country want to hang on to power even if it costs blood."
On Wednesday, the government also released audio and video clips purporting to show opposition leaders conversing with alleged Russian spies, reports Radio Free Europe. Authorities have alleged that Russia is behind the recent unrest.
… The material, some concerning ongoing developments and some dating back to 2005, had been edited to include captions and headings -- leading to speculation that it had been prepared well in advance and held for release when it could decisively discredit the opposition.
Representatives of the ruling party were ready with their condemnation. Givi Targamadze, chairman of the parliament's Defense and Security Committee, issued an emotional statement, saying those in the opposition who were rallying under the banner of patriotism were, in fact, "traitors who collaborated with Russian secret services."
Russian officials dismissed the allegations, and said the decision by Georgia to expel three Russian diplomats was "unprecedented," reports Russian news agency Interfax.
"Allegations that Russian diplomats were involved in the opposition protest action could have been born only from an unsound mind," Kovalenko said.
The Washington Post reports that the events mark the "most serious challenge to Saakashvili," who came to power in the 2003 street uprising known as the Rose Revolution and was then elected to office. The Post drew attention to US support for the new democracy, and tensions with Russia.
On a platform of reform, his government forged close ties with the United States and Europe, contributed troops to the coalition in Iraq and lobbied for membership in the NATO alliance and the European Union. President Bush has called Georgia a "beacon of democracy" in the region.
… Georgia's relations with Russia have sunk to all-time lows in the past year. Russia has cut transportation links, deported Georgians and banned certain imports; Georgia has deported Russian officials and accused Russian warplanes of flying over its territory and dropping a missile on its soil. Relations are tense in part because Georgia has two zones that have effectively seceded from central government authority and enjoy Russian support. Saakashvili has been campaigning to bring them back under government control.
… Opponents say Saakashvili's government has become increasingly authoritarian in ways that echo Soviet days, allowing judicial abuse and political intimidation. They note that former defense minister Irakli Okruashvili, after accusing the president of corruption and a murder conspiracy, then went on television to recant his claims. Now abroad, he has reiterated his accusations.
Tina Khidasheli, an opposition leader, who told the Post she had been beaten and hit with a tear gas canister when police moved in, blamed the violence in part on the United States's "unconditional support" for Georgia's ruling party. "For four years they did not question anything Saakashvili was doing," she said. "Beacon of democracy? The shining of democracy was in the streets today."
Interestingly, an interview with Saakashvili on Saturday, published in the Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Monitor, suggests that no one expected the protests to escalate quite as much as they did.
The anti-government protest in Tbilisi has echoes of the Rose Revolution. However, opposition leader Georgy Khaindrava, a former minister in Saakashvili's government, told me during the protest rally in front of parliament, "There will be no revolutions—we will beat them at the polls." Saakashvili also plans to stay in power by wining elections, but he has refused the opposition demand to have an early parliamentary vote next spring …
Saakashvili has not been impressed by the opposition's show of strength. "There are less of them out there and the protest may titter out," he told me.