Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Georgian president cracks down on opposition

Proposes early election

This was originally published in November 10, 2007 Armenian Reporter.
by Emil Sanamyan

Georgia will hold an early presidential election on January 5, President Mikhail Saakashvili announced on November 8 amid international criticism of his government’s crackdown on protestors in Tbilisi the day before. Mr. Saakashvili said he needed a renewed “unequivocal mandate” from the nation to “tackle foreign threats,” www.civil.ge reported.

On November 7 security forces beat protestors and seized dissident television stations and the government announced a 15-day state of emergency and closure of private news broadcasters, Georgian and international news agencies reported.

Georgia is Armenia’s key conduit to the rest of the world. Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian reiterated the importance of Georgia’s stability to Armenia on November 8, saying that “Yerevan is attentively following the events in Georgia and hopes that the situation will be soon settled politically,” Mediamax news agency reported.

Many thousands of protestors held peaceful demonstrations for six days through November 7, when police used rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannon, and truncheons to disperse them. More than 500 were reported injured in ensuing street clashes, with dozens of activists detained.

Mr. Saakashvili, who has enjoyed strong U.S. support since his election in 2004, expressed fears that the protests may lead to a civil war and claimed they were fomented by the Russian government, his longtime nemesis. But with most Georgian opposition parties supporting pro-Western policies, no Russian involvement in protests was immediately apparent.

Security forces seized a station co-owned by local tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili and Rubert Murdoch’s News Corporation, reportedly detaining its staff at gunpoint. Mr. Patarkatsishvili, who has promised to bankroll the opposition protests, said he was abroad during the crackdown.

The government announced that the state-controlled television will have a monopoly on news broadcasts and that all street protests or strikes would be illegal in the next 15 days. Opposition leaders reportedly called off further protests citing safety reasons.

Mr. Saakashvili, who himself came to power following street protests, defended the crackdown, saying that “[Georgian] democracy needs the firm hand of the authorities.” But the Georgian Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II condemned the violence as “completely unacceptable.”

U.S. and European officials expressed “concern” over developments. A White House spokesperson, Gordon Johndroe, urged “that any protests be peaceful and that both sides refrain from violence.”

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer criticized the government’s actions as “not in line with Euro-Atlantic values.” The European Union said it would dispatch its regional envoy Peter Semneby to Georgia.

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