A U.S. diplomat urged the government of this former Soviet republic Monday to “restore the momentum of democratic reform” by immediately lifting a state of emergency and freeing all television stations to broadcast the news.
The tough message from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew J. Bryza reflected concern in Washington over the steps taken by Georgia’s U.S.-friendly president to crush anti-government demonstrations last week.
Speaking to reporters after meeting with Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli, Bryza said he was given the impression the Georgian government was moving toward lifting the state of emergency “quite quickly.”
Bryza, who also met with opposition leaders, planned to talk with President Mikhail Saakashvili before leaving Tuesday.
Saakashvili last week called an early presidential election for Jan. 5 in an attempt to defuse the political crisis, the worst he has faced in nearly four years in office.
The move caught the fragmented opposition off guard, but several factions announced Monday that they had agreed on a backing a single candidate to challenge the president.
They chose Levan Gachechiladze, a businessman and member of parliament who has not been a prominent opposition leaders. His running mate for the prime minister’s post is Salome Zurabishvili, a former French diplomat who served as Saakashvili’s first foreign minister.
However, the Interfax and Novosti-Gruziya news agencies said the Labor Party broke with other opposition parties on forming a united front. It plans to run its leader, Shalva Natelashvili, for president, the reports said.
Sharp criticism for emergency rule
Saakashvili imposed a 15-day state of emergency Wednesday after riot police used clubs and tear gas against opposition protesters in the capital, Tbilisi. Demonstrations were banned as were all television news broadcasts except on state TV.
The president’s action drew sharp criticism from the West and warnings that it could harm his efforts to integrate this small Caucasus nation into the European Union and NATO.
“Everybody who cares about democracy, everybody who cares about stability in the region, has a vested interest in Georgia’s success,” Bryza told journalists after talking with the prime minister.
Bryza said he urged opposition leaders to do their part by not inciting people to violence.
The opposition protests, which ran for six straight days, were peaceful until police moved in. Protesters were demanding changes to the electoral system to give the opposition a larger role, and some called for Saakashvili’s ouster.
Saakashvili, who has sought to shed Russia’s influence, defended the state of emergency as a necessary response to what he says was a coup attempt stage-managed by Moscow. Russia angrily rejected the allegation, and the opposition denies doing the Kremlin’s bidding.
Audiotapes of telephone conversations between some opposition leaders and Russian diplomats were played on state TV last week, but Gachechiladze, 43, was not among them.
“These are unusual elections — they are a continuation of our battle against violence, against lawlessness, against the institution of the president,” Gachechiladze said, adding that he will push for Georgia to adopt a parliamentary system.