Riot police officers used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons Wednesday to clear thousands of demonstrators from the streets of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, employing extensive force in the face of protests against the country’s pro-Western government.
The country’s economy minister, Georgy Arveladze, then announced at a news briefing Wednesday night that a 15-day countrywide state of emergency had been declared. Earlier, Georgia’s prime minister had said that there had been a coup attempt after protests in the capital. “There was an attempt at a coup and creating disorder,” Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli said.
The country’s principal opposition news outlet, Imedi TV, went off the air at night amid reports that a special forces unit had entered the station’s offices. The phones of the television station did not answer calls, and government officials could not be immediately reached to answer questions about the station’s evident shutdown.
By nightfall more than 350 people had reported with injuries to hospitals, the Health Ministry said. More were expected, as the police had charged another rally late in the day, firing rubber bullets and more tear gas as the crowd called for President Mikheil Saakashvili to resign.
Witnesses and participants who fled the clouds of tear gas reported that police officers had rushed through the city’s streets and beaten demonstrators not swift enough to escape. Many protesters were bleeding.
The police also scuffled with journalists covering the confrontation and confiscated or shattered some of their equipment, witnesses and the country’s human rights ombudsman said.
The police sweeps, while they cleared the streets at least temporarily, underlined the intensity of the challenge to the government and reputation of Saakashvili, who rose to power with peaceful protests in 2003 and has cast himself as the most democratic ruler in the Caucasus.
The opposition has accused him of running a centralized government intolerant of dissent and undermined by high-level corruption and police and prosecutorial abuse.
Opposition leaders called the police action a political crackdown and mass punishment, and urged Georgians to gather in renewed protests. Georgia is a small and tightly knit nation. The possibility of escalation, or further clashes and police action, seemed high.
“The authorities have used weapons against the peaceful demonstrators, and therefore the authorities will get what they deserve from the people,” Kakha Kukava, an opposition member of Parliament, told journalists, according to the Interfax news agency.
The government defended its actions. It said that protesters were not entirely peaceful and that the riot police were necessary after protesters forcibly pushed though police lines. The government and witnesses said that police lines were briefly established in the morning to restore traffic blocked by the demonstration, which was in its sixth day.
“What happened this morning was very regrettable,” said Giga Bokeria, a prominent member of Parliament and close ally of Saakashvili, said by telephone. “They behaved very badly,” he said of opposition leaders, accusing them of urging the protesters to rush the police. “They just openly called for violence.”
Saakashvili, appearing on national television early in the night, said the violence pained his heart, but defended the police and the decision to deploy them, and called on the public to cease protests.
He blamed Russian intelligence services for coordinating elements of the demonstration, and said that several Russian diplomats would be expelled from the country. He made no clear concessions, but offered to enter talks with the opposition.
“We should start a dialogue,” he said. He also promised to restore order, “so that everything will return to the framework of a democratic dialogue,” according to regional wire reports.
A short while later, the opposition television station went off the air.
Saakashvili’s government faced an enraged opposition and widespread unease about its actions. Reached by telephone shortly after the first police sweeps, Sozar Subari, the country’s human rights ombudsman, denounced the government’s use of force and suggested that Georgia, which had undertaken many reforms since 2003, had stepped sharply backward.
“Georgia is now the same as Lukashenko’s Belarus,” he said, referring to a post-Soviet state that much of the West has labeled a dictatorship. A woman could be heard screaming in the background.
Subari later called the police action “illegal” and said he himself, Georgia’s official human rights representative, had been beaten by the police. “Even after I declared that I am the ombudsman, they beat me more,” he said.
The United States, the Saakashvili government’s principal foreign sponsor and mentor, had no immediate response.
Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia, which ruled Georgia during Soviet times, said, “This is a domestic issue for Georgia and its people.”
The protesters, who first gathered in front of Parliament last Friday, had initially demanded early parliamentary elections and other measures that might relax what they regard as the government’s tight hold on power and allow a degree of political plurality.
But after Saakashvili ignored the demonstrators for nearly three days, and then publicly belittled their leaders on national television and said they were doing the bidding of the Kremlin, the demonstrators roundly demanded that he resign.
The Kremlin is highly unpopular in Georgia after decades of Soviet occupation and for its open support since the early 1990s for separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions out the Georgian government’s control.
Bokeria said Wednesday that the government had made video and audio recordings in recent days of some of the opposition leaders meeting with Russian intelligence officers in Tbilisi and discussing their plans. The veracity of the tapes could not be confirmed.
Many demonstrators have bristled that the government has repeatedly cast the opposition as a Russian proxy and has neither agreed to negotiate nor openly acknowledged sources of popular discontent. While economic conditions have improved during Saakashvili’s term, Georgia remains bedeviled by underemployment and poverty.
Michael Schwirtz contributed reporting. International Herald Tribune