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Georgia leader seeks to cool unrest, Western criticism by calling early presidential election

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Posted: November 8, 2007 5:18 p.m.
Updated: November 23, 2007 5:00 a.m.
    TBILISI, Georgia — Under fire from the West, the U.S.-friendly leader of this former Soviet republic moved Thursday to defuse an explosive political crisis by calling an early presidential election and promising to quickly lift a state of emergency.
    President Mikhail Saakashvili also offered minor concessions to the opposition, whose protests demanding electoral reforms were violently broken up a day earlier by riot police using tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon.
    Tbilisi was quiet Thursday, patrolled mainly by hundreds of soldiers armed only with rubber clubs, while heavily armored riot police stayed out of sight.
    The use of force against the demonstrators and Saakashvili’s declaration of a state of emergency deeply shocked many Georgians.
    But while his already weakening popularity is likely to take a further hit, the president is expected to win a second term in the Jan. 5 election because the fragmented opposition lacks the time and resources to mount a serious challenge.
    The police violence and the banning of all news broadcasts except those on state-controlled television drew sharp criticism from the West on Thursday.
    Saakashvili has worked to break free from Russia’s orbit and integrate Georgia with the West, but his handling of the opposition challenge has raised questions about the U.S.-educated leader’s stated commitment to democracy.
    State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the declaration of a state of emergency ‘‘a disappointment’’ and said the United States wanted Saakashvili to ‘‘return back to the people the various freedoms that they enjoyed.’’
    NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer warned Saakashvili might be jeopardizing Georgia’s aspirations to join the Western military alliance.
    ‘‘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 said in a statement.
    Saakashvili’s televised address late Thursday appeared to be an attempt to respond to the criticism and ease tensions while retaining his political control. He said he was calling the early presidential election ‘‘to gain the trust of the people.’’
    ‘‘My compromise is that the opposition is given a chance to get elected by the people, if they have the support,’’ he said.
    He also proposed simultaneously holding a referendum on when to hold the next elections for parliament. That ballot had been moved back to late 2008, but the opposition is demanding the election be held earlier in the year as originally scheduled.
    Under the Georgian constitution, the president is elected for a five-year term and calling an early election would require parliament’s approval. A majority of legislators back Saakashvili and they are expected to quickly endorse his decision.
    Saakashvili also expressed readiness to discuss other measures the opposition says would make the electoral system more democratic.
    ‘‘In the long term, the political environment will emerge from these recent events as more competitive and less dominated by the ruling party,’’ said Ana Jelenkovic, a Georgia analyst at Eurasia Group, a U.S.-based firm that provides advice on geopolitical risks.
    The political crisis is the worst Saakashvili has faced since being ushered into power almost four years ago after peaceful street protests known as the Rose Revolution.
    Many Georgians support his efforts to shake off Russia’s influence and take the small Caucasus nation into the European Union and NATO, efforts that have alarmed the Kremlin.
    But Saakashvili’s critics accuse him of sidestepping the rule of law and failing to move fast enough to spread growing wealth. The average monthly pension remains at about $30.
    The disillusionment fed the latest rounds of protests, which began Nov. 2 with about 50,000 people massing outside parliament.
    The protesters initially called for changes in election dates and the electoral system. But after Saakashvili rejected their demands and accused their leaders of serving Russia’s interests, they made his ouster their central aim.
    On Wednesday, riot police advanced toward the protesters, pushing people back with shields and beating some with truncheons. They fired tear gas and rubber bullets and sprayed the crowd with water cannons.
    Health officials said 569 people, including 24 policemen, sought medical treatment after the clash, and 28 remained hospitalized Thursday. The Interior Ministry said 32 protesters were detained.
    In a televised address late Wednesday, Saakashvili said he regretted the use of force, but argued it was necessary to prevent the country from sliding into chaos.
    Some Georgians agreed. ‘‘This was the right thing to do, otherwise they would have overthrown the government,’’ said Mariam Gormarteli, 36, a hotel manager in Tbilisi.
    But Marina Ramishvili, a 40-year-old cleaning woman who took part in the protests and was gassed, said she would never forgive Saakashvili, whom she once supported.
    ‘‘He crossed out democracy in Georgia,’’ she said. ‘‘He showed that he doesn’t consider his own people humans.’’
    Saakashvili accused Moscow of fomenting the unrest and expelled three Russian diplomats. Russia responded Thursday by expelling three Georgian diplomats, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said, accusing Georgia of ‘‘unfriendly acts.’’
    Associated Press writer Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili contributed to this report.

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