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U.S. ambassador forced to leave speech by Georgian president

U.S. ambassador forced to leave speech by Georgian president

The U.S. ambassador to Georgia and several other American diplomats had to leave the national library in Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi after a mob of angry protesters tried to prevent the Georgian president from giving a speech there.

U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Richard Norland gave remarks in Tbilisi after President Mikheil Saakashvili was forced to cancel his planned speech due to a violent crowd that prevented him, his top advisors, and several Georgian lawmakers from entering the front door, even attacking them physically.

"There are certain basic principles in democracy and no matter how strongly you feel about an issue or how much you feel you’ve been wronged there is no excuse for using violence, for punching parliamentarians as they go in to hear a speech by the president," Norland said in remarks after the incident. "We condemn this violence."

The audience waiting for the speech, including Norland, made their way out of the library at their own pace — via the back door  in an orderly exit  to stay away from the crowd out front, a U.S. official told The Cable.

Raphael Glucksmann, a senior advisor to Saakashvili, told The Cable that the crowd physically assaulted the mayor of Tbilisi, Gigi Ugulava, who is one of the main leaders of the opposition, along with many opposition members of parliament, journalists, and civil society activists. Videos of the incident can be seen here and here.

The violence continued into Friday evening and Saakashvili made his speech from the presidential palace. The Georgian Minister of Interior Irakli Garibashvili eventually showed up on the scene and threatened any protesters employing violence with arrest.

Garibashvili said to reporters on the scene that the police had set up a safe route for Saakashvili to enter the library but that the president decided to try to go through the main entrance where the protesters had assembled.

"Our political opponents came here from the direction where protesters were mobilized and they did not use corridor which was secured for them by the police; so we suspect that they deliberately staged this provocation," Garibashvili said.

Norland that said the government needed to keep the peace.

"We condemn the violence and we believe there should be an investigation and those who are responsible for a crime should be prosecuted… Clearly the government has the responsibility to provide law and order," he said.

The violence and conflict inside Georgia has continued ever since last October’s highly contentious parliamentary elections, which unseated Saakashvili’s United National Movement party for the first time since Georgia became a democracy and brought to power the Georgian Dream party, led by the new Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Saakashvili remains president until October and both sides have pledged to adhere to a policy of "cohabitation" until then, but the political mood in Tbilisi is still tense, in part because of the ongoing prosecutions of several former senior officials — cases seen by many observers as politically motivated.

While in Washington last November, Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze told The Cable that the officials under investigation are "criminals and guilty." Several U.S. senators were so troubled by those comments they wrote to her to urge the new Georgian government to avoid selective prosecutions and follow the rule of law.

"I understand obviously that Western governments have to engage with Georgian new authorities but I also do think that some stronger statements coming from them would be very helpful to calm things on the ground," Saakashvili’s advisor Glucksmann said.

"We condemn today’s violence in Tbilisi," State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told The Cable. "We urge all parties to work together constructively to advance Georgia’s democratic and economic development."