TBILISI, Georgia – Troops flooded the center of the Georgian capital on Thursday to enforce a state of emergency imposed after a violent crackdown on anti-government protesters.
Hundreds of Interior Ministry officers in khaki uniforms and armed with hard rubber truncheons patrolled Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare, the site of the main protests by demonstrators calling for U.S.-backed President Mikhail Saakashvili to resign.
Riot police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons, and Saakashvili announced a 15-day nationwide state of emergency, in which news broadcasts on independent stations were halted and all demonstrations banned.
Nearly 100 people hurt during the clashes remained hospitalized Thursday, the Health Ministry said.
Normally noisy, bustling Rustaveli Avenue was quiet. Only a few cars moved along the street.
Many pedestrians seemed stunned by the crackdown, and most were reluctant to talk about it.
“One doesn’t treat one’s own people this way,” said Yekaterina Bukoyeva, a 35-year-old civil servant. “It was very painful to see how they were dispersing all the people.”
The crackdown followed six days of protests in front of Parliament — Georgia’s worst political crisis since the pro-Western Saakashvili was elected nearly four years ago.
The American-educated Saakashvili, who is trying to shake off centuries of Russian influence and integrate the ex-Soviet republic with the West, accused Moscow of fomenting the protests and expelled three Russian diplomats. Tensions with Russia have risen as Saakashvili has sought to establish central government control over two separatist regions that have run their own affairs with Russian support since wars in the early 1990s.
In protests that began Friday, demonstrators initially called for changes in the dates of planned elections and the electoral system. But after Saakashvili rejected their demands and accused their leaders of serving the Kremlin, they made his resignation their central aim.
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.
The White House voiced concern over Wednesday’s events.
“We urge that any protests be peaceful and that both sides refrain from violence,” said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council. “The government and opposition should engage in a constructive dialogue with each other. We will continue to monitor the situation.”
At least four channels showed entertainment programs instead of their regular news shows Thursday morning, and classes in schools and universities in Tbilisi were suspended for two days.
A Georgian television station regarded by the government as an opposition mouthpiece went off the air Wednesday night after riot police entered its headquarters. The Imedi station has carried statements by opposition leaders and broadcast constant footage of police dispersing the protests.
Opposition leaders advised supporters to refrain from street protests — in line with government orders — to avoid being hurt, Ivlian Khaindrava, a leader of the opposition Republican Party, told The Associated Press.
Many of Saakashvili’s opponents support his aims, including closer ties with the United States and Europe.
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 deepened ties with the separatist regions and imposed a trade and transportation blockade on Georgia.
Some Georgians supported Saakashvili’s crackdown, also accusing Russia of fomenting the unrest.
“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.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry dismissed Saakashvili’s claims as “irresponsible provocation” and said they were an attempt to distract attention from domestic problems.
“We believe Georgia is approaching a serious human rights crisis,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail 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.”