Georgia woke up to its first full day under emergency rule Thursday, a day after riot police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to break up demonstrations calling for the overthrow of the government.
Pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili declared the 15-day state of emergency Wednesday and, on Thursday, three Russian diplomats were expelled from the country. The 39-year-old president, who led the peaceful Rose Revolution in 2003 against the rule of President Eduard Shevardnadze, has claimed that Moscow is attempting to foment a coup in the republic, which once formed part of the Soviet Union.
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.
Russia, which still regards the former republics of the Soviet Union as being within its sphere of influence, has been alarmed by Georgia's courting of the West, and Saakashvili claims opposition leaders have been funded and advised by Russia. The Foreign Ministry in Moscow has dismissed the Georgian government's claims of a Russian-backed coup as being "hysterical," an "irresponsible provocation" and an attempt to distract from domestic problems.
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.