The Rose Revolution Wilts: Georgia Imposes Emergency Rule
Four years ago Mikhail Saakashvili led the Rose Revolution against the authoritarian President Eduard Shevardnadze. Now, as mass protests call for his resignation as president of Georgia, he has imposed emergency rule and accused Russia of fomenting a coup.
Georgian police clash with protestors in Wednesday Tbilisi.
Police have taken control of the central square outside the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi. Schools and universities are closed and all news broadcasts, apart from those on state-controlled television, have been banned.
Opposition supporters had been gathering outside parliament every day since last Friday, when more than 50,000 people participated in rallies. They initially called for changes to the dates of planned elections and to the electoral system. But since the president began accusing them of serving the Kremlin, the calls for his resignation have become even louder.
On Wednesday the protests descended into violent clashes, as police began to push demonstrators back and to beat some with truncheons. The riot police then fired tear gas at the demonstrators from pickup trucks as they retreated down the capital's main avenue. More than 500 people were injured, with 100 still in hospital on Thursday, according to the Georgian Health Ministry. The Imedi television station, which had carried statements by opposition leaders and broadcast footage of the police's heavy-handed tactics, was taken off the air Wednesday night after riot police entered its headquarters.
The Georgian government is justifying the repressive measures as a reaction to what it claims is Russian interference in the country. Announcing the state of emergency on Wednesday, Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli said, "An attempt to conduct a coup was made, and we had to react to that."
And in a 30-minute televised address Saakashvili said he regretted the use of force but that it was necessary in order to prevent Georgia from descending into chaos. "We cannot let our country become the stage for dirty, geopolitical escapades by other countries," he said. "Our democracy needs the firm hand of the authorities."
While Saakashvili, a US-educated lawyer has tried to stand up to Russia, and to establish control over two breakaway regions that have been backed by Moscow, his popularity has waned as his style of governing has become increasingly authoritarian. Opponents accuse him of ignoring the rule of law, failing to tackle poverty and creating a corrupt system marked by political arrests.
In September and October of last year, relations between the neighboring states hit a new low after Georgia accused four Russian officers of espionage, and the authorities blocked the Russian military headquarters in Tbilisi. Moscow reacted by deporting over 130 Georgians and cracking down on Georgian businesses in Russia.
The current political crisis was kicked off back in September after former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili accused Saakashvili of corruption and plotting to murder a businessman. He later retracted his allegations -- after being arrested and accused of corruption himself -- but he has repeated them since fleeing to Germany last week.
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