The president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, on Thursday called for a special presidential election on Jan. 5, saying he would test whether he retained a mandate a day after a police crackdown and clashes with opposition demonstrators led the government to declare a state of emergency.
Saakashvili said a referendum would also be held on Jan. 5 to determine the timing of parliamentary elections, which the opposition had demanded for next spring.
Saakashvili’s surprise announcement was an effort to alleviate the domestic unrest and international concern after the police action in Tbilisi, the country’s capital, and the suspension of civil liberties. The president also said that the state of emergency would end soon.
More than 500 people were injured in the crackdown and clashes, none fatally, the government said. In the aftermath, public assembly was banned by the emergency order and two opposition television stations were forced off the air.
One of the stations, Imedi TV, carried the country’s most popular news programs; it was occupied by special-forces officers. The government accused it of inciting unrest after it broadcast a statement from one of its owners, Badri Patarkatsishvili, calling for the end of Saakashvili’s government.
Newspapers and foreign news broadcasts were not available in the capital on Thursday and the police filled the streets. Residents wondered whether their country, a young and fragile democracy in a turbulent corner of the former Soviet Union, would backslide into authoritarian rule.
Appearing on national television at 7 p.m., three hours after calling the U.S. ambassador in Tbilisi and notifying him of his plans for snap elections, Saakashvili both defended the police action and expressed a degree of regret.
He said he had been forced to act against a plot organized by Russia to destabilize Georgia and threaten its independence and experiment in democracy. The president insisted that he was protecting the country, not his own power.
“My chair is worth nothing to me; we care about countries, not chairs,” he said. “Demand and you will receive. You demanded early elections. Here they are: early elections. Come and decide who you want to vote for.
“I do not want to be the president of a country that limits mass media and that declares emergency rule,” he added. “I can only rule the country if I have a renewed mandate from the people.”
He called on international organizations to send as many election observers as possible to ensure that the campaign and the voting would be fair.
Russia has denied playing a role in the protests, which Saakashvili has said were coordinated in part by Russian intelligence officers working with several opposition leaders.
“This is nothing but an attempt to cover their own helplessness in resolving internal problems,” Mikhail Kamynin, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, said on Russian television.