Georgia lawmakers back state of emergency
Opposition party boycotts measure
TBILISI, Georgia - Lawmakers who support President Mikhail Saakashvili unanimously voted yesterday to endorse his 15-day state of emergency, an indication the pro-Western leader might not go through with a pledge to end it swiftly.
Opposition lawmakers boycotted the 149-to-0 vote in the 235-seat parliament, which allows Saakashvili to keep independent TV news off the air for nearly two weeks, among other measures.
Saakashvili had promised Thursday that he would quickly lift Wednesday's emergency declaration and called early presidential elections for January, a response to domestic and global criticism of his move to emergency rule after days of demonstrations against him.
Georgian law requires parliament to approve any emergency declaration within 48 hours. Parliament speaker Nino Burdzhanadze, a close ally of Saakashvili, said after the president's speech that such approval had probably become unnecessary.
The parliamentary vote yesterday was seen by some observers as an indication that the US-backed president could keep the state of emergency in place for the full 15 days.
US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew J. Bryza was headed to Georgia yesterday to express American concerns and discuss with Saakashvili and other officials how to strengthen Georgia's democratic institutions.
"Sometimes the process of democratic reform and having a democratic political system isn't necessarily easy, but at the end of the day in our view, that is the best way forward," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday.
Saakashvili's televised address Thursday appeared to be a carefully calibrated attempt to respond to criticism at home and abroad and ease tensions while retaining political clout.
He cast the announcement of early elections as a concession, but the fragmented opposition seemed to be caught off guard and appeared unlikely to mount a serious challenge to his winning a second five-year term in the Jan. 5 vote.
Opposition parties said yesterday that they were halting street protests as they began discussions to unite around a single presidential candidate. Far fewer police and security troops could be seen in central Tbilisi, and the city's main avenue reopened to traffic and pedestrians.
"The president's speech was equal to resignation," said Salome Zurabishvili, a former foreign minister who now heads the Georgia's Way opposition party.
Many Georgians still support Saakashvili's efforts to shake off Russia's influence and take the small former Soviet nation into the European Union and NATO. But the president's popularity has declined in recent years because of his failure to tackle endemic poverty in a nation where the average monthly pension is about $30.
Many have also accused him of sidestepping the rule of law, creating a powerful executive branch, and trying to muzzle critics. Official corruption, which Saakashvili has promised to eradicate, remains widespread.
The growing disillusionment fed the latest rounds of protests, which ended Wednesday when riot police fired tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets against demonstrators.
Nearly 600 people sought medical treatment after the clashes, including two dozen police officers, and 32 protesters were detained.
The West sharply criticized police violence against journalists and protesters, the deployment of hundreds of troops in the capital, and the ban on all news broadcasts except those on state-controlled television.
The United States called the state of emergency a "disappointment," and NATO's top official warned that Georgia's aspirations to join the alliance may be jeopardized.
Saakashvili accused Moscow of fomenting the unrest and expelled three Russian diplomats. Russia, which denied the accusations, responded by expelling three Georgian diplomats.