In a surprise announcement after a day of violent suppression of opposition demonstrators, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili announced...
TBILISI, Georgia — In a surprise announcement after a day of violent suppression of opposition demonstrators, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili announced Thursday night that he would move the next presidential election up to Jan. 5, nearly a year earlier than scheduled.
Speaking on state television as police patrolled the streets in the capital Tbilisi, Saakashvili promised “the most democratic, most free, most transparent elections during my presidency for the past four years.” He added that he needed a strong mandate to resist opponents he says are backed by Russian intelligence agencies.
His announcement, which followed strong Western criticism of his use of force against demonstrators and his declaration of emergency powers, appeared to calm the week-old crisis. Some opposition figures signaled their readiness to take part in the election; others dropped out of sight and at day’s end had made no statements.
In his address, the president said a referendum would also be held Jan. 5 to decide whether to change the date set for parliamentary elections, an issue that has divided politicians here and helped set the stage for the anti-government demonstrations.
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The announcement was welcomed by some analysts who had predicted a day earlier that the country, a close U.S. ally next to Russia, could descend into civil war.
Giorgi Margvelashvili, a Georgian political scientist, said Saakashvili had defused a potentially catastrophic standoff and was likely to win the January election. The move “was very smart, very proactive,” Margvelashvili said. “It was like the old Saakashvili.”
The move buoyed the president politically after a week of dismal public relations in which thousands of protesters rallied peacefully against him in the Parliament, then were dispersed with tear gas and rubber bullets by riot police. The government declared a 15-day state of emergency late Wednesday and shut down most news outlets. Foreign news channels such as CNN and the BBC were knocked off cable systems.
Under the U.S.-educated Saakashvili, Georgia has drawn close to the United States and European Union. On Thursday, the government continued a feud with Russia that has been heightened by the crisis.
In his speech Thursday, Saakashvili said that because of his crackdown Georgia had avoided a coup that had been months in the making, an apparent allusion to his claim of a Russian conspiracy against his government.
Steven Guice, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi, said Saakashvili had been in regular contact with U.S. and European leaders since the crisis began. After the events of Wednesday, “I think it’s fair to say a lot of people were trying to get hold of him,” he said. “I think all of Georgia’s friends sort of spoke up.”