Snap election to resolve Georgia crisis

Snap election to resolve Georgia crisis

Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, has called an early ballot after declaring a state of emergency following violent clashes between police and anti-government protesters in Tbilisi.

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Mr Saakashvili said elections due to be held in late 2008 would be brought forward in the wake of Wednesday's running battles on the streets of the capital.

“I took the decision that Georgian presidential elections will be held January 5,” he said in a televised address to the nation. “You wanted elections early. Have them even earlier.”

Opponents who had been calling for Mr Saakashvili to resign have claimed an early victory.

“Saakashvili has no chance of being re-elected,” said Tina Khidasheli, of the Republican Party. “Saakashvili is done, he's over – there's no doubt about it.”

'Attempted coup'

But the president's decision leaves a splintered opposition facing a tough election battle, with only eight weeks in which to campaign against the pro-Western leader.

Mr Saakashvili and his supporters have accused neighbouring Russia of involvement in the anti-government demonstrations which descended into violence on Wednesday, dubbing the incident an attempted coup.

Two opposition leaders, Tsotne Gamsakhurdia and Shalva Natelashvili, are wanted for allegedly spying for Russia and plotting the overthrow of the government, Georgia's deputy prosecutor general announced on state television.

Amid rapidly deteriorating relations between Georgia and its former ruler Russia, Mr Saakashvili repeated allegations that Moscow was fomenting unrest, describing the protests as “an attack on Georgian democracy.”

The country announced it was expelling three diplomats on spying charges, and Russia responded by expelling three Georgian diplomats from Moscow.

International criticism

Russian foreign ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said Georgia was teetering on the brink of “a serious human rights crisis.”

Mr Saakashvili has come under a barrage of international criticism since imposing a 15-day state of emergency in the wake of Wednesday's clashes, when police used rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon against demonstrators.

NATO, which has infuriated Russia by making Georgia a candidate member, condemned the violence and the emergency measures.

“The imposition of emergency rule and the closure of media outlets in Georgia… are of particular concern and not in line with Euro-Atlantic values,” NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said.

Violence 'unacceptable'

France said the violence was “unacceptable”, and the United States, which is Saakashvili's main outside backer, called for “constructive dialogue” between the government and opposition.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said “political differences should be resolved within the democratic institutions.”

Troops were on guard in Tbilisi on Thursday, and all private television stations ceased to broadcast news, while demonstrations were banned.

The president has said emergency rule could end soon but did not specify when.

The speaker of parliament, Nino Burdjanadze, a close Saakashvili ally, indicated it could happen as early as Friday.