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Georgian president defeated, calls early presidential election for Jan. 5

After President Mikhail Saakashvili called for early presidential elections for January, Georgian opposition leaders said that they would discontinue streets protests against him.

Far fewer police and security troops patrolled the streets of central Tbilisi - where riot troops clashed with anti-government protesters earlier in the week. The capital's main avenue reopened for automobile traffic and pedestrians Friday.

In an effort to defuse the worst political crisis during his four years in office, Saakashvili offered minor concessions Thursday to the opposition, which is demanding electoral changes that will grant it a greater political role.

Under sharp criticism from the West - and from Russia - he called the snap election for Jan. 5 and also promised to quickly lift a state of emergency.

"The president's speech was equal to resignation," Salome Zurabishvili, a former foreign minister who now heads the Georgia's Way opposition party, said.

Opposition leaders said they would stop street protests as they began discussions to unite around a single candidate to run against Saakashvili. But most observers believed the fragmented opposition lacks the time and resources to mount a serious challenge.

"We have no plans to take to the streets and organize demonstrations because dialogue (with the authorities) has already begun," said Georgy Khaindrava, a former government minister and now a leader of the National Council on United Opposition.

The crackdown on demonstrators and the state of emergency deeply shocked many Georgians. But while Saakashvili's already sliding popularity is likely to take a toll, he can still be expected to win a second term.

Many Georgians support his efforts to shake off Russia's influence and take the small Caucasus nation into the European Union and NATO, but critics also accuse him of sidestepping the rule of law and failing to move fast enough to spread growing wealth. The average monthly pension remains at about US$30 (EUR20).

The disillusionment fed the latest rounds of protests, which ended Wednesday when riot police fired tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets against anti-government demonstrators.

Nearly 600 people sought medical treatment after the clashes, including two dozen police officers, and 32 protesters were detained.

Saakashvili accused Moscow of fomenting the unrest and expelled three Russian diplomats. Russia, which denied the accusations, responded by expelling three Georgian diplomats.

The police violence, the hundreds of troops on the streets and the banning of all news broadcasts except those on state-controlled television drew sharp criticism from the West.

The United States criticized the state of emergency order and NATO's top official warned that Georgia's aspirations to join the alliance may be jeopardized.

Saakashvili's televised address Thursday to announce the early presidential election appeared to be an attempt to respond to the criticism and ease tensions while retaining his political clout.

He proposed simultaneously holding a referendum on when to have the next parliamentary elections. The elections had been moved back to late 2008, but the opposition has demanded that they be held earlier in the year as originally scheduled.

Rustavi 2 TV, which has been supportive of Saakashvili's government, was broadcasting some programs Friday, but was waiting for the state of emergency to be lifted to resume news broadcasts.

The smaller station Kavkasia remained off the air as did Imedi, the country's main independent, and most popular station.

International media conglomerate News Corp., which recently took over Imedia's operations, said a raid Wednesday by masked police caused severe damage to the station's equipment and would keep the station off the air for at least three months.

Saakashvili has worked to break free from Russia's orbit and integrate Georgia with the West, but his handling of the opposition challenge raised questions about the U.S.-educated president's stated commitment to democracy.

The political crisis is the worst he has faced since being ushered into power almost four years ago after peaceful street protests known as the Rose Revolution.

Under the constitution, the president is elected for a five-year term and calling an early election would require parliament's approval. A pro-Saakashvili majority in parliament is expected to quickly endorse his decision.

Badri Patarkatsishvili, a wealthy Georgian tycoon who has called for ousting Saakashvili, alleged that authorities would try to block other candidates from running. He urged the opposition to unite around a powerful figure and seek to transfer more powers to parliament.

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