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Georgia: After Crackdown On Protests, President Calls Early Polls

By Claire Bigg and Daisy Sindelar An opposition supporter falls on the street as police disperse protesters in Tbilisi (AFP) November 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Georgia is two weeks shy of marking the fourth anniversary of the Rose Revolution, the peaceful public uprising that swept Mikheil Saakashvili to the presidency and which has arguably been the most durable of the post-Soviet "colored" revolutions.

But the mood in Tbilisi on November 23 is unlikely to be celebratory.

Saakashvili, whose leadership style has been a balancing act between democratic sentiment and a keen desire for near-absolute control, has shocked compatriots and sympathizers abroad by imposing a national state of emergency after the violent dispersal on November 7 of peaceful opposition protests in the capital.

Saakashvili has blamed Russia for fomenting unrest aimed at toppling him. But many are calling the incident a disproportionate use of force -- and say the events call into question Saakashvili's commitment to the democratic principles he has sworn by. Western allies that he has carefully cultivated also expressed concern.

"The police operation started without any warning," opposition figure Ivlian Khaindrava said. "They kicked participants in the rally, several people were arrested, and cameras were smashed or seized from representatives of different television channels. There is only one solution: this government must go."

But in another surprise move today, Saakashvili appeared to offer a concession to his political opponents. He announced he would schedule early presidential elections, moving the vote from next autumn to January 5, 2008. In addition, he said there would be a parallel referendum to ask the public whether they would prefer subsequent parliamentary polls to be held in the fall as scheduled or spring next year, as protesters had demanded.

(On November 9, the U.S. State Department, the Council of Europe, and representatives of the Georgian opposition welcomed Saakashvili's call for early polls and a referendum. But Saakashvili was still being urged by Washington and the opposition to end both the state of emergency and a government ban placed on independent broadcasters. The parliament in Tbilisi later approved the 15-day state of emergency in a 149-0 vote.)

Harsh Crackdown

In addition to rubber bullets, riot police used tear gas, water cannons, truncheons, and in some instances their bare fists to break up the dwindling rally, which had swelled to as many as 70,000 demonstrators when the protest began on November 2.

Private and opposition Georgian broadcasters -- before being summarily shut down by government order -- showed graphic images of the violent clashes. The Health Ministry said more than 500 people sought medical assistance as a result.

Saakashvili, who has defended his actions as "a leader of this country's young democracy," has said the use of police force was commensurate with measures taken by countries in the West

The organization Human Rights Watch disagreed. "Even in a time of crisis, Georgians have a right to protest peacefully without being beaten by the police," Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "Firing rubber bullets at peaceful demonstrators is a complete abuse of the use of force. The government does not have carte blanche to restrict fundamental freedoms just because it is in crisis."

A Tbilisi resident walks by as Saakashvili addresses the nation (AFP)

Rob Parsons, a South Caucasus affairs analyst and foreign-affairs editor at France-24 TV, said the government was probably justified in seeking to clear downtown streets after six straight days of chaos. "But on the other hand, one would expect a degree of judgment on the part of the government,” Parsons said. “It seems the judgment has been a bit heavy-handed in this case."

The opposition protests were attended largely by elderly, poor regional representatives of a diverse collection of parties and movements that have found common cause in their call for early parliamentary elections and Saakashvili's ouster.

They have a powerful sponsor in Georgian billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili -- the owner of Imedi TV, which was stormed by riot police moments before going off the air on the evening of November 7. But until this week's events, the opposition had been seen as a largely ineffective challenge to the presidential administration.

Balance Of Power

How Saakashvili -- and Georgia -- will emerge from the current upheaval is unclear.

Saakashvili is viewed by many as the most successful pro-Western leader in the former Soviet Union. Unlike Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, whose own "colored" revolutions quickly became bogged down in political infighting, Georgia has largely stayed on its pro-democracy, pro-integration track.

The World Bank in 2006 named Georgia as the top reformer in the world, and the country has seen significant economic growth. But many in Georgia have complaints: the standard of living has improved only incrementally for most, and much government spending has been redirected toward a bullish expansion of its defense forces. Still, Saakashvili has always enjoyed massive public support -- and that, Parsons says, is part of the problem.

"It's not his fault that there's such a small, divided opposition in Georgia. Not his fault that the opposition is so divided. The people of Georgia gave him a huge majority in the wake of the Rose Revolution, and in a way, his massive majority has been his biggest difficulty," Parsons says. "As everybody keeps repeating in democratic states, it's absolutely critical that there should be a balance of power within the structures of democracy. And there isn't in Georgia. The government can pretty much do what it likes."

The actions of the past week are almost certain to have broader consequences for Georgia.

Of key importance for Saakashvili's domestic standing is Georgia's bid to gain a Membership Action Plan during the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest. Although the 26-member alliance was already split on the issue, several Western countries, including the United States, had strongly encouraged Georgia in its membership drive.

Today, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the military alliance was following "closely and with concern" the events in Georgia. "The imposition of emergency rule, and the closure of media outlets in Georgia, a partner with which the alliance has an intensified dialogue, are of particular concern and not in line with Euro-Atlantic values," he added.

Similar concern was voiced by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and the European Commission. Peter Semneby, the EU's special representative to the South Caucasus, is due to arrive in Tbilisi on November 9 for talks with both Saakashvili and opposition representatives.

Off The Air

The EU’s concern centered largely on the media clampdown. Two private television stations were shut down, radio broadcasts were banned, and even foreign journalists were warned to exercise restraint in their reporting on the government's actions.

Until now, Georgia has been credited with maintaining a fairly open and diverse media environment. "This is a rather unusual situation for Georgian journalists -- and not only for journalists, but for the whole country -- because it's the first time a state of emergency has been declared, and we're not sure what we can and cannot do in a state of emergency," says Giorgi Laperashvili, a television news producer at Georgia's Rustavi-2 broadcasting company, which was forcibly closed despite its pro-government stance. "Newsrooms at all television and radio stations will stop working for 15 days, and only public television will be covering events. We're waiting for explanations why this has happened."

But some of the harshest words, not surprisingly, have come from Russia, with which Georgia has sparred recently over its efforts to forge close ties with the West and restore control over two Georgian separatist regions backed by Russia.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said the crackdown on protesters amounted to "crude and mass violations of human rights and democratic freedoms." He also urged the United Nations, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Council of Europe to condemn the violence.

And State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov pointed a finger at Washington. "As for the Georgian authorities and their policy of accusing Russia of [being involved in] everything -- [this policy] has been going on for some years," he said. "I think this is all done on the orders of the United States' special services."

Some political observers in Russia, however, believe Moscow may indeed have had a hand in the weeklong Tbilisi rallies.

"Russia has long been interested in removing Saakashvili as the leader of a government hostile to Moscow," says Yevgeny Volk, the head of the Heritage Foundation think tank in Moscow. "I think that Russia helped the opposition organize these rather massive protest through different methods, including secret services. There has nonetheless long been an objective basis for discontent with Saakashvili in Georgia, linked chiefly to low living standards and enduring corruption in government organs."

(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)

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