Georgia's parliament on Friday prepared to endorse President Mikhail Saakashvili's state of emergency decree banning independent media and mass meetings, defying criticism from Western allies and domestic opponents.
As traffic returned to normal in central Tbilisi and soldiers took a lower profile, foreign governments and human rights organizations pressed Saakashvili to lift the state of emergency he declared on Wednesday and to allow a free press.
But a deputy speaker of parliament, Mikhail Machavariani, said the 15-day emergency would be approved by the assembly, where Saakashvili's party and its allies control some two-thirds of the seats. A debate was planned at 4 p.m. (7:00 a.m. EST).
We think we will approve the decree on the state of emergency, Machavariani said. We have a lot of information that Russian intelligence services are interfering in Georgian affairs.
Saakashvili, a pro-Western leader who has styled himself as a beacon of democracy in the unstable Caucasus region, on Wednesday used riot police to crush a mass protest calling for his resignation and closed opposition broadcasters.
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 leader Tina Khidasheli told Reuters on Friday she welcomed the early poll but challenged Saakashvili to reopen critical media channels to ensure a fair vote.
We will have a common presidential candidate very soon, she said. We can eject Saakashvili from Georgia's political scene.
The coalition is made up of 10 parties which united last month to force the 39-year-old Saakashvili from power.
The grouping has called off protests during the state of emergency to avoid supporters clashing with police.
The opposition parties mainly supported Saakashvili in a peaceful 2003 revolution which propelled him to power but now they say he heads a corrupt and authoritarian government which has mismanaged the country's economy.
They broadly argue with Saakashvili's pro-Western views, although the government has accused several opposition figures of links with Russian intelligence, a charge they deny.
Saakashvili blames Georgia's former Soviet master for stirring unrest, a charge vigorously denied by Moscow.
Saakashvili's drive to take his country into NATO and his pursuit of U.S. support has angered Russia, which cut all transport links and imposed trade sanctions last year.
Saakashvili expelled three Russian diplomats from Georgia this week, accusing them of being behind the agitation. Moscow dismissed the charges, saying the Georgian leader was simply trying to distract attention from his domestic problems.
Georgia's crackdown on independent media has attracted wide criticism from Western governments and rights groups. Armed police shut the main opposition broadcaster, Imedi, on Wednesday. Smaller opposition broadcasters were also shut.
On Thursday the United States said it was disappointed and the U.S.-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists said in a statement that it was deeply concerned at the television station closures.
Georgian billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili, who finances the opposition movement and co-owns Imedi with media baron Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., said in a statement from London that the state of emergency had to be lifted.
Patarkatsishvili said the government would prevent the real opposition from participating in the elections. He noted that ex-defense minister Irakly Okruashvili, whose sensational allegations against Saakashvili sparked the protests, would be too young to stand in a January election.
(Editing by Matthew Tostevin)