Troops were deployed in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, on Thursday and news programmes taken off air as international concern grew over President Mikheil Saakashvili’s imposition of emergency rule.
The Nato military alliance, France and Human Rights Watch added their condemnation in the wake of Saakashvili’s declaration of a 15-day state of emergency.
The decree was signed after violent clashes between police and anti-government demonstrators, which Saakashvili — a strongly pro-Western leader — described as a Russian-backed coup attempt.
About 200 troops were visible on Thursday in central Tbilisi, where police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons to disperse thousands of demonstrators on Wednesday.
The emergency banned demonstrations and imposed a near-total news blackout, with news broadcasts restricted to state television.
Georgia’s opposition urged supporters not to defy the heavily armed security forces. ”We have told everybody to calm down,” Davit Usupashvili, of the opposition Republic Party, said.
Meanwhile, the government gave the Russian embassy the names of three diplomats facing expulsion on spying charges, something Russian ambassador Vyacheslav Kovalenko described to the Interfax news agency as ”an unprecedented provocation”.
Russia responded by announcing the expulsion of three Georgian diplomats from Moscow.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mikhail Kamynin said Georgia was teetering on the brink of ”a serious human rights crisis”.
The Health Ministry said 589 people sought medical help during Wednesday’s clashes, which started when police tried to break up a six-day-old protest rally. Twenty people remained hospitalised. Thirty-two people were arrested, police said.
For many residents of Tbilisi, the brutal scenes on Wednesday and the subsequent state of emergency ended their dreams of transforming the ex-Soviet republic of under five million people into a Western-style democracy.
”I’m going to work as normal, but it’s already a different country. I never believed such a thing could happen,” said Nugzar Talavadze, a 47-year-old trader.
Nato, which has infuriated Russia by making Georgia a candidate member, condemned the violence.
”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 in a statement.
France also said the violence was ”unacceptable”. The United States, which is Saakashvili’s main outside backer, called on Wednesday for ”constructive dialogue” between the government and opposition, while European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said ”political differences should be resolved within the democratic institutions”.
Holly Cartner, from the New York-based Human Rights Watch organisation, said ”the government does not have a carte blanche to restrict fundamental freedoms just because it is in crisis”.
Tbilisi was quieter than usual, but shops and transport were mostly functioning. The main Rustaveli Avenue was partly closed.
The only broadcaster permitted to give news was the state-owned channel. The private pro-opposition Imedi channel was entirely shut down late on Wednesday.
The Republican Party’s Usupashvili said the splintered opposition, which consists of at least 10 parties and lacks a single charismatic leader, will ”try to decide what to do next, but it will be difficult because of the restrictions imposed by the authorities”.
Saakashvili, who came to power in the peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution, on Wednesday accused neighbouring Russia of fomenting the unrest.
Announcing the state of emergency, Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli said Saakashvili had decided on the measure to prevent ”a coup d’état”. Giorgi Mayisashvili, leader of the opposition Future Party, said he blamed Saakashvili for the crisis.
However, he added that there are elements of ”dirty opposition, linked to destructive forces from other countries, [that] could manipulate the people. We also need to sort this out.”
He called on the government to lift restrictions ”in the shortest possible period. If this doesn’t happen, then my party will declare civil disobedience — a peaceful campaign that does not violate the Constitution.” — Sapa-AFP