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Georgia's Besieged President Calls Early Election


Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who is mired in a deep political crisis, Thursday agreed to call early presidential elections and said he would lift the state of emergency. In this background report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at what led to the latest unrest in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Georgia is under a state of emergency, imposed after riot police used tear gas, water cannons, baton charges and rubber bullets to disperse thousands of demonstrators in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. For six days, protesters rallied near Georgia's parliament building, calling for early parliamentary and presidential elections, as well as the resignation of President Mikhail Saakashvili. After the imposition of the state of emergency, opposition leaders said they would suspend their demonstrations.

Experts say this is the most severe political crisis facing Mr. Saakashvili since he was elected president by an overwhelming margin in January 2004 following a popular movement that became known as the Rose Revolution. It forced the resignation of Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister who became president following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Since coming to power, Mr. Saakashvili has been following a pro-western foreign policy while attempting to diminish Russia's influence in Georgia.

Olga Oliker with the RAND Corporation, says that has aggravated tensions with Russia.

"Though, I think, for instance, what some folks in the Russian government are more concerned about is the very strong pro-western policies that he's adopted: Georgia has sent forces to Iraq, Georgia has worked very, very hard to build strong ties with the United states; it has been very clear about its desire to eventually join the NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] alliance," said Olga Oliker.

On the domestic side, he has been attempting to fight corruption and trying to restore Georgia's territorial integrity - bringing back the separatist and autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia under Tbilisi's full control.

But Oliker says Mr. Saakashvili has also been consolidating power - a key criticism of the opposition.

"There is less press freedom," she said. "It is much more difficult to be part of the political opposition in Georgia than it used to be. There was a lot more press freedom actually under President Shevardnadze than there has evolved under Saakashvili."

Experts say, when Mr. Saakashvili came to power in 2004, there was a lot of enthusiasm and hope that things would get better in Georgia.

But Oliker says that has changed.

"There is a lot of concern in Georgia that the promise that they felt they had from Saakashvili when he came to power, which was of freedom and democracy and free press, isn't what they are actually seeing - that they are seeing a pro-western foreign policy, but they are seeing domestic policies that seem to constrain freedoms rather than entrench them," said Olga Oliker.

That concern, say experts, has manifested itself by anti-government street demonstrations in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. But analysts say it is unclear whether the opposition has supporters elsewhere who could trigger protests in other parts of the country.

President Saakashvili has accused Russia of helping the opposition - a claim Russian officials described as an irresponsible provocation.

Robert Legvold, a Russia expert from Columbia University, says the relationship between Mr. Saakashvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin is unique.

"Uniquely hostile," he said. "I believe that the relationship between Russia and Georgia is the only, almost unmitigated hostile relationship within the post-Soviet space involving Russia."

Experts say relations between Georgia and Russia are at an all-time low. And they say it will be interesting to see if Moscow tries to capitalize on the Georgian domestic unrest.

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