TBILISI (Reuters)–Georgia’s pro-Western president said Thursday that the country would hold early presidential elections in January to defuse a crisis fueled by protests against him.
The vote had been due to take place in late 2008, but President Mikhail Saakashvili said it would be held on January 5 "to receive the trust of the people."
Troops armed with hard rubber clubs patrolled the center of the Georgian capital to enforce a state of emergency imposed by Saakashvili after a violent crackdown on anti-government protesters.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer warned that Saakashvili may be jeopardizing Georgia’s aspirations to join the Western alliance with the 15-day nationwide state of emergency, in which news broadcasts on independent stations were halted and all demonstrations banned.
"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.
Hundreds of the khaki-uniformed Interior Ministry officers flooded Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare, the site of the main protests by demonstrators calling for the U.S.-backed Saakashvili to resign.
The riot police responded to the demonstrators with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons. Saakashvili defended the use of force, saying it was necessary to prevent the former Soviet republic from sliding into chaos as it moves toward integration with the West.
The American-educated Saakashvili, who is trying to shake off centuries of Russian influence and integrate the ex-Soviet republic with the West, accused Moscow of fomenting the protests and expelled three Russian diplomats.
Russia responded Thursday by expelling three "senior" Georgian diplomats in response to Georgia’s "unfriendly acts," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said on Vesti-24 television.
Georgian health officials said 569 people sought medical treatment after the clashes, including 24 police officers, and 28 remained hospitalized Thursday.
The Interior Ministry said 32 protesters were detained.
Classes in schools and universities in Tbilisi were suspended for two days.
Normally noisy, bustling Rustaveli Avenue was quiet. Only a few cars moved along the street.
Many pedestrians seemed stunned by the crackdown, and most were reluctant to talk about it.
"One doesn’t treat one’s own people this way," said Yekaterina Bukoyeva, a 35-year-old civil servant. "It was very painful to see how they were dispersing all the people."
The crackdown followed six days of protests in front of Parliament – Georgia’s worst political crisis since the pro-Western Saakashvili was elected nearly four years ago.
Tensions with Russia have risen as Saakashvili has sought to establish central government control over two separatist regions that have run their own affairs with Russian support since wars in the early 1990s.
Russia has dismissed Saakashvili’s claims of interference as an "irresponsible provocation" and said it was an attempt to distract attention from domestic problems.
"We believe Georgia is approaching a serious human rights crisis," Kamynin said Thursday. "The footage the whole world saw from Tbilisi vividly shows what Georgian-style democracy is: It is the harsh, forceful dispersal of peaceful demonstrations, the closure of free media, the beating of foreign journalists."
In protests that began began Nov. 2, demonstrators initially called for changes in the dates of planned elections and the electoral system. But after Saakashvili rejected their deman’s and accused their leaders of serving the Kremlin, they made his resignation their central aim.
The White House voiced concern over Wednesday’s events.
"We urge that any protests be peaceful and that both sides refrain from violence," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council. "The government and opposition should engage in a constructive dialogue with each other. We will continue to monitor the situation."
At least four channels showed entertainment programs instead of their regular news shows Thursday morning, and classes in schools and universities in Tbilisi were suspended for two days.
A Georgian television station regarded by the government as an opposition mouthpiece went off the air Wednesday night after riot police entered its headquarters. The Imedi station has carried statemen’s by opposition leaders and broadcast constant footage of police dispersing the protests.
The state of emergency must be approved by parliament within two days.
Opposition leaders advised supporters to refrain from street protests – in line with government orders – to avoid being hurt, Ivlian Khaindrava, a leader of the opposition Republican Party, told The Associated Press.
Many of Saakashvili’s opponents support his aims, including closer ties with the United States and Europe.
But there has been increasing disillusionment among critics who say he has not moved fast enough to spread growing wealth. Opponents accuse him of sidestepping the rule of law, creating a system marked by violations of property rights, a muzzled media and political arrests.
Some Georgians nonetheless supported Saakashvili’s crackdown, also accusing Russia of fomenting the unrest.
"You could see Russia’s hand in this and one had to make tough decisions – it was necessary, because they were already starting provocations," said David Chedia, a marketing manager.