TBILISI, Georgia – President Mikhail Saakashvili on Thursday called an early presidential election for January in an attempt to defuse Georgia's bitter political crisis and strengthen his hold on power.
The vote had been due to take place in late 2008, but Saakashvili said the vote would be held on Jan. 5 "to gain the trust of the people."
Saakashvili's decision came a day after riot police violently dispersed opposition protesters who had rallied in the capital for a week to demand his ouster. The pro-Western president then imposed a state of emergency and banned all news broadcasts except state-controlled television.
Saakashvili, seen as Washington's man in the Caucasus, has been trying to integrate the former Soviet republic with the West. He came under harsh criticism over the crackdown.
U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the declaration of a state of emergency "a disappointment," and said the United States had called on Saakashvili to "return back to the people the various freedoms that they enjoyed."
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer warned that Saakashvili may be jeopardizing Georgia's aspirations to join the Western military alliance.
"The imposition of emergency rule and the closure of media outlets in Georgia, a partner with which the alliance has an intensified dialogue, are of particular concern and not in line with Euro-Atlantic values," he said in a statement Thursday.
In calling an early election, Saakashvili sought both to ease the tensions and sideline the opposition.
"My compromise is that the opposition is given a chance to get elected by the people, if they have the support," Saakashvili said in his televised address.
He proposed holding a referendum simultaneously with the presidential vote on when to hold parliamentary elections. The parliamentary elections had been due to take place in late 2008, but the opposition wants an early vote next spring.
Under the Georgian constitution, the president is elected for a five-year term, and calling an early election would still require parliament's approval. A pro-Saakashvili majority in parliament is expected to quickly endorse his decision.
Saakashvili also said the 15-day nationwide state of emergency that he imposed late Wednesday would be lifted in the coming days "because the situation in Georgia is quickly stabilizing."
Hundreds of troops clad in khaki uniforms patrolled the center of the Georgian capital on Thursday to enforce the ban on demonstrations. Tbilisi's main thoroughfare, Rustaveli Avenue, site of the main protests and the initial police offensives, was quiet.
The crackdown followed six days of protests in front of Parliament — Georgia's worst political crisis since Saakashvili was elected nearly four years ago.
Saakashvili, who is trying to shake off centuries of Russian influence, accused Moscow of fomenting the protests and expelled three Russian diplomats.
Russia responded Thursday by expelling three "senior" Georgian diplomats in response to Georgia's "unfriendly acts," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said.
Russia has dismissed Saakashvili's claims as an "irresponsible provocation," and said it was an attempt to distract attention from domestic problems.
"We believe Georgia is approaching a serious human rights crisis," Kamynin said Thursday. "The footage the whole world saw from Tbilisi vividly shows what Georgian-style democracy is: It is the harsh, forceful dispersal of peaceful demonstrations, the closure of free media, the beating of foreign journalists."
Riot police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon Wednesday to break up the demonstrations.
Health officials said 569 people sought medical treatment after the clashes, including 24 police officers, and 28 remained hospitalized Thursday.
The Interior Ministry said 32 protesters were detained.
In a nearly 30-minute televised address late Wednesday, Saakashvili said he regretted the use of force, but argued that it was necessary to prevent the country from sliding into chaos.
"Everyone has the opportunity to express their protest in a democratic country and I, as a democrat, have always defended the right of people to protest ... but the authorities will never allow destabilization and chaos in Georgia," he said, flanked by Georgian and EU flags.
The state of emergency must be approved by parliament within two days.
Opposition leaders advised supporters to refrain from street protests — in line with government orders — to avoid being hurt, said Ivlian Khaindrava, a leader of the opposition Republican Party.
Saakashvili banned news broadcasts, except on state-controlled television, and at least four channels showed entertainment programs instead of their regular news shows Thursday morning.
Many of Saakashvili's opponents support his aims, including closer ties with the United States and Europe.
Saakashvili has sought to decrease Russia's influence and establish central government control over two separatist regions that have run their own affairs with Russian support since wars in the early 1990s.
But there has been increasing disillusionment among critics who say he has not moved fast enough to spread growing wealth. Opponents accuse him of sidestepping the rule of law, creating a system marked by violations of property rights, a muzzled media and political arrests.
Russia, which views most countries of the former Soviet Union as its sphere of influence, has watched with alarm Saakashvili's turn to the West. Moscow has deepened ties with the separatist regions and imposed a trade and transportation blockade on Georgia.
Some Georgians supported Saakashvili's crackdown, echoing his accusations.
"You could see Russia's hand in this, and one had to make tough decisions — it was necessary, because they were already starting provocations," said David Chedia, 27, a marketing manager.