Georgia defies critics, backs state of emergency
TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia's parliament on Friday endorsed President Mikhail Saakashvili's state of emergency decree in defiance of local opponents and Western allies, and accused an opposition tycoon of plotting a coup.
Soldiers kept a lower profile in central Tbilisi after cordoning off the main avenue 24 hours earlier, raising expectations that the emergency laws -- which ban independent media and big meetings -- would be ditched.
But parliament voted 149-0 to back the 15-day emergency decree Saakashvili had imposed on Wednesday, after police fired plastic bullets, water cannon and tear gas at peaceful anti-government protesters to drive them off the streets.
Despite harsh criticism from Western allies, Saakashvili and his supporters justified the decree by accusing Russian agents of destabilizing the country.
"The threat that existed until now is still present despite the calm that has been restored," Nino Burjanadze, parliament's speaker said at the start of the vote.
Saakashvili's chief of staff, Eka Sharashidze, later told a news briefing the emergency laws could be abolished soon. "We expect the state of emergency will be lifted in the next few days," he said.
Saakashvili has adopted a staunchly pro-Western stance since surging to power in a peaceful 2003 revolution and hopes to join NATO and the European Union, irking Russia which resents Western intrusion into its former Soviet empire.
The U.S. State Department said a U.S. envoy would go to Georgia at the weekend to emphasize Washington's opposition to the declaration of a state of emergency.
Matt Bryza, an assistant secretary of state for European affairs, will meet Saakashvili and other officials. The state of emergency "is not in Georgia's interests, not in the Georgian people's interests," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov scorned Saakashvili's accusations that Russia had stirred trouble in the country. "We do not interfere in Georgia's domestic problems, do not tell politicians what to do," he told a news conference.
Georgian opposition leaders and some Western politicians have also rejected the theory of Russian sponsorship, saying the mass protests are more likely a reflection of popular discontent at economic hardship and at Saakashvili's forceful style.
The prosecutor-general earlier accused billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili, the opposition's chief financier, of being part of a coup plot and said Georgia would seek to bring the tycoon in for investigation "to question him as a suspect".
On Thursday Patarkatsishvili issued a strongly worded statement from London criticizing Saakashvili for the state of emergency and saying it aimed to gag the opposition ahead of an early presidential election in January.
Patarkatsishvili owns a majority stake in Georgia's main opposition broadcaster Imedi, which was pulled off the air in an armed police raid on Wednesday. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. owns the rest of the shares and has management control.
Under pressure from his main Western sponsors, Saakashvili appeared on television late on Thursday to announce an early presidential election on January 5. Analysts said that would give his opponents little time to unite behind a leader.
Opposition leaders welcomed the early poll but said the emergency measures gave Saakashvili an unfair advantage.
"There won't be enough time and enough sources to conduct the campaign because all the opposition media is shut down and all the businesses are terrorized who have the financial sources to support the opposition," exiled opposition leader Irakly Okruashvili told Reuters in Berlin.
Okruashvili is a former defense minister who sparked mass anti-government protests by accusing Saakashvili of corruption, charges Saakashvili has denied. Police then arrested Okruashvili and he was released on $6 million bail only after retracting his accusations, something he says he did under duress.
Earlier in the day Saakashvili's opponents in Tbilisi said they would announce a leader to rally around within a few days.
The coalition is made up of 10 parties which came together last month to force the 39-year-old Saakashvili from power.
The opposition parties mainly supported Saakashvili in the peaceful 2003 revolution which propelled him to power but now they say he heads a corrupt and authoritarian government.
(Editing by Tim Pearce)
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