US sends envoy to meet embattled Georgian president

A WAY FORWARD: The diplomat said he was going to visit a 'friend' to express disappointment over a state of emergency that was approved by parliament on Friday


Sun, Nov 11, 2007 - Page 6

A US diplomat heading to the Republic of Georgia said he will express serious disappointment to Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili about his imposition of a state of emergency.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza said on Friday that in meetings over the weekend he would seek assurances from Saakashvili and other government officials that Georgia will guarantee free and fair elections.

"We urge the government ... to lift the state of emergency, restore all media broadcast and have a real and serious discussion with the opposition about how to chart a way forward and strengthen Georgia's democratic institutions," Bryza said.

Bryza said he also would meet members of the opposition who have called for Saakashvili's removal and will call on them to ensure a peaceful run-up to elections.

"The important thing to remember is that Georgia is our friend. It's not this individual or that individual," he said.

Bryza said the US was very concerned about reports of violence in last week's crackdown, when police forced independent TV channels off the air and attacked journalists.

"The reports that we are starting to get now are that things went beyond a textbook policing operation," he said. "We are hearing more and more reports that people were grabbed from stores or that passers-by were beaten. Things got out of control."

Nearly 600 people sought medical treatment after the clashes, including two dozen police officers. Thirty-two protesters were detained.

The US is also particularly disappointed that on Friday the Georgian parliament approved the state of emergency with a vote, Bryza said.

Washington has been broadly supportive of Saakashvili since he catapulted to power after the 2003 "Rose Revolution" mass protests, but the Georgian president has faced criticism in the West and Russia since the crackdown.

Bryza said the US welcomes Saakashvili's promise on Thursday that early presidential elections would be held on Jan. 5.

Last week's events deeply shocked many Georgians.

While his already-sliding popularity is likely to take a big hit, most observers still expect Saakashvili will win a second term in the January vote.

Saakashvili's popularity has declined in recent years because of his failure to tackle endemic poverty in a country where the average monthly pension is around US$30.

Many also have accused him of sidestepping the rule of the law, creating an overly powerful executive branch and attempting to muzzle critics.

Official corruption, which Saakashvili had promised to eradicate, remains widespread.