November 9, 2007
Beset Georgian President Sets Elections
By C. J. CHIVERS
MOSCOW, Nov. 8 — The president of the republic of Georgia, which has been in a state of emergency since a violent police crackdown on opposition demonstrators on Wednesday, announced today that he would participate in a special presidential election on Jan. 5.
The president, Mikheil Saakashvili, also said that a referendum would be held on the same day for the timing of parliamentary elections, which the opposition had demanded be held next spring.
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.
Mr. Saakashvili declared a state of emergency Wednesday night after riot police officers used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon to clear thousands of demonstrators from the streets. The order immediately closed two television stations and banned public assembly in the capital, and would be in effect for at least 48 hours, a senior government official said by telephone.
The country’s principal opposition news outlet, Imedi TV, went off the air as a special forces unit, armed and wearing dark masks, entered the station’s offices. By then at least 365 people had reported to hospitals to treat their injuries, the country’s health ministry said.
The government later issued a televised statement saying the emergency would last 15 days.
Giga Bokeria, a prominent member of Parliament and one of Mr. Saakashvili’s closest allies, said that the order was issued after Badri Patarkatsishvili, an owner of Imedi TV who is widely believed to be Georgia’s richest man, appeared on the station and said he would work to remove the government from power.
“Mr. Patarkatsishvili made a statement on his television station that he will use all of his resources to overthrow the illegal state of Georgia,” Mr. Bokeria said by telephone, asserting that a conspiracy to topple the government was under way. “We strongly believe all of this was planned long ago.”
Mr. Patarkatsishvili said later that he had misjudged Mr. Saakashvili and that the Georgian government had made an irreparable mistake. “I was very naïve when I thought that the authorities would not dare to touch the people,” he said by telephone, saying that he was calling from Israel. “Today, in front of the eyes of all of the world the Saakashvili government lost its legitimacy.”
Mr. Bokeria said the order was not a full curfew and was in force only the capital.
The declaration of a state of emergency followed a day of violence and public outrage that began in the morning when police tried to restore traffic flow on the city’s main boulevard, Rustaveli Avenue, which had been blocked by opposition demonstrators since last Friday. An initial police effort was shoved back by the demonstrators, but the police returned forcefully and with riot gear.
Witnesses and participants who fled the clouds of tear gas reported that police officers had rushed through the city’s streets and beaten demonstrators not swift enough to escape. Many protesters were seen bleeding. The police also scuffled with several journalists and confiscated or destroyed some of their equipment, witnesses and the country’s human rights ombudsman said.
While the police sweeps cleared the streets at least temporarily, they underlined the intensity of the challenge to the government and reputation of Mr. Saakashvili, who rose to power with peaceful protests in 2003 and has cast himself as a darling of Washington and the most democratic ruler in the Caucasus. He has provided troops to the American-led war in Iraq and pledged to send units to Afghanistan next year; he has also encouraged the development of a pipeline to carry oil from the Caspian basin to Western markets.
The opposition has accused him of running a centralized government intolerant of dissent and undermined by high-level corruption and police and prosecutorial abuses.
Opposition leaders labeled the police action a political crackdown and collective punishment, and called for Georgians to gather in renewed protests. Georgia is a small and tightly knit nation; the possibility of escalation, or further clashes and police action, seemed high.
“The authorities have used weapons against the peaceful demonstrators, and therefore the authorities will get what they deserve from the people,” said Kakha Kukava, an opposition member of Parliament, according to the Interfax news agency, hours before the emergency order was issued.
The government defended its actions, saying that the demonstrations were not entirely peaceful and that the riot police were necessary after protesters forcibly pushed though police lines.
“What happened this morning was very regrettable,” Mr. Bokeria said. He accused opposition leaders of urging the protesters to rush the police, which he said set off the violence and bedlam that ensued. “They behaved very badly,” he said. “They just openly called for violence.”
Mr. Saakashvili, appearing on national television early in the night, said the violence pained his heart. But he defended the police and the decision to deploy them, and called on the public to cease the protests.
He blamed Russian intelligence services for coordinating elements of the demonstration and said that three Russian diplomats would be expelled from the country. “We cannot let our country become the stage for dirty geopolitical escapades by other countries,” he said. “Our democracy needs a firm hand from the authorities.”
He made no clear concessions, but offered to enter talks with the opposition.
“We should start a dialogue,” he said. He also promised to restore order, “so that everything will return to the framework of a democratic dialogue,” according to regional wire reports.
A short while later he issued the emergency order, and Imedi and a second television station promptly went off the air. The pro-government Rustavi-TV continued its broadcasts.
Mr. Saakashvili’s government faced an enraged opposition and widespread unease about its actions. Reached by telephone shortly after the first police sweeps, Sozar Subari, the country’s human rights ombudsman, denounced the government’s use of force and suggested that Georgia, which had undertaken many reforms since 2003, had taken large steps backward.
“Georgia is now the same as Lukashenko’s Belarus,” he said, referring to President Aleksandr Lukashenko, the leader of a post-Soviet state that much of the West has labeled a dictatorship. A woman could be heard screaming in the background.
Mr. Subari later called the police action “illegal” and said that he himself had been beaten by the police. “Even after I declared that I am the ombudsman, they beat me more,” he said.
The United States, the Saakashvili government’s principal foreign sponsor and mentor, urged the two sides to settle their differences peacefully. “Neither side, whether the government or the opposition, should take any steps that would be deliberately provocative to the other and could lead to violence,” said the State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack.
Sergey V. Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia, which ruled Georgia during Soviet times, called the unrest “a domestic issue for Georgia and its people.” The Kremlin made similar remarks during police crackdowns, some of them intensely violent or even lethal, in Uzbekistan, Belarus and Azerbaijan.
The protesters, who first gathered in front of Parliament last Friday, had initially demanded early Parliamentary elections and other measures that might relax what they regard as the government’s tight hold on power and allow a degree of political pluralism
But after Mr. Saakashvili ignored the demonstrators for nearly three days, and then publicly belittled their leaders on national television and said they were doing the bidding of the Kremlin, the demonstrators roundly demanded that he resign.
The Kremlin is highly unpopular in Georgia after decades of Soviet occupation and for its open support of separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions of Georgia that are out of the Georgian government’s control.
Mr. Bokeria said today that the government had made video and audio recordings in recent days of some of the opposition leaders meeting with Russian intelligence officers in Tbilisi and discussing their plans. The authenticity of the tapes could not immediately be confirmed.
Many demonstrators have bristled that the government has tried repeatedly to discredit the opposition by casting it as a Russian proxy, and has neither agreed to negotiate nor openly acknowledged sources of popular discontent. While economic conditions have improved during Mr. Saakashvili’s term, Georgia remains bedeviled by underemployment and poverty.
They have also said that Mr. Saakashvili, a lawyer educated at Columbia University, had let pride and stubbornness interfere with his judgment and grown out of touch with the people.
Mr. Saakashvili’s government had said it would respect the demonstrators’ rights of free speech and assembly, and would allow protesters to stand on the steps of Parliament as long as they wished. It had cautioned, however, that it would not allow traffic in front of Parliament to be blocked indefinitely, and that no tents could be pitched.
The standoff turned violent after police officers pushed open a corridor on Rustaveli Avenue, participants, journalists and a Western diplomat at the scene said by telephone. Traffic was briefly restored, the witnesses said, but soon the demonstrators pushed back.
The police swung batons to try to stop them, the witnesses said, but the demonstrators, at least several thousand in all, had the strength to push through. They quickly regained control of the street, and their leaders called for a mass rally at 2 p.m.
The large-scale violence began as the police returned in force. Wearing gas masks and carrying heavy equipment, they advanced on the crowd in dense formations and began to fire tear-gas canisters, said the witnesses and the Western diplomat, who following protocol would speak only anonymously. The crowd broke apart and fled wildly, but some people fell or were caught by the police, the witnesses said, and a truck-mounted water cannon sprayed others.
Ambulances crowded the area, witnesses said, and in some cases medical technicians handed out surgical masks to victims to protect them from inhaling more gas.
Witnesses said the water cannon appeared to be used to soak the demonstrators on the cold day, with the intent of forcing them to seek shelter inside.
A photographer working for The New York Times was seized by an officer who wrestled away her camera and shattered it on the street. She was able to retrieve her disk of pictures, but the camera was ruined and she had two bloody scrapes on her face. Late at night the police fired rubber bullets at her as she tried to photograph the police cordon at the offices of Imedi-TV.
There were also accusations that the police forcibly collected video and still cameras during the violence and returned them after, part of an effort to limit the number images that could be published or broadcast.
As the two sides separated in the afternoon, there were calls for mediation between the government and the opposition, including one from the Patriach Ilia II, head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, who also denounced the police action.
Nino Burdjanadze, the speaker of Parliament and one of Mr. Saakashvili’s allies, appeared on the pro-government Rustavi television station and called for talks.
The government has said that Russia, which has presidential elections in the spring, could try to sow unrest in Georgia or recognize the breakaway region of Abkhazia, which could lead to a military confrontation.
The opposition said the changes were a political manipulation designed to allow the ruling party and president to mass resources for a joint campaign, and have resulted in a Parliament that will be illegitimate when its original term ends in the spring.
Mr. Saakashvili, in an interview last week, denied all of the accusations against him and his government and said he was unwilling to negotiate on the election date. The opposition, he said, was weak and poorly led.
“That’s the beauty of democracy and open systems,” he said. “Anybody can see not just the intelligence of people, but also the stupidity.”
Mr. Saakashvili has previously been sensitive to his image abroad. With video of the violence being broadcast on the international news, and with the opposition enraged, Mr. Saakashvili suggested in his address to the nation that Georgia’s enemies were pleased.
Michael Schwirtz contributed reporting.