By Matthew Collin |
BBC News, Tbilisi
After the worst civil unrest in Georgia for many years, President Mikhail Saakashvili made a surprise announcement: "You wanted elections early. Have them even earlier."
|Mr Saakashvili said he wanted a renewed mandate|
A day earlier, he had imposed a state of emergency after riot police used force to put down opposition protests in the capital, Tbilisi.
The ferocity of the police crackdown caused shock, disbelief and anger in Georgia, and provoked stern criticism from Mr Saakashvili's Western allies.
The US state department said the Georgian president's actions were a "disappointment", while the secretary general of Nato said Mr Saakashvili could be jeopardising Georgia's chances of ultimately joining the Western military alliance.
The opposition has welcomed Mr Saakashvili's concessions, saying they represent a triumph for "people power".
"The Georgian people have won," said Zviad Dzidziguri of the Conservative Party.
"We have always said that these kinds of confrontations between the people and the authorities always end with the victory of the people."
Leading Georgian analysts believe that by calling early presidential elections, Mr Saakashvili has defused the political crisis which represented the biggest threat to his authority since he came to office in 2004 after the Rose Revolution.
"This was a brilliant move," Giorgi Margvelashvili, head of research at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs, told the BBC.
|Authorities said the state of emergency would be lifted soon|
Mr Margvelashvili believes that the Georgian president's supporters in Washington and Brussels exerted pressure on him to compromise.
"Western powers pushed him to find a democratic solution," Mr Margvelashvili said.
"But they only did this because there was such a strong demand for democracy from within Georgian society."
Mr Margvelashvili says the crackdown on the protests has damaged Mr Saakashvili's international image as a democratic reformer, although he could recover if the presidential elections in January are free and fair.
He also suggests that Mr Saakashvili is the favourite to win the elections, because so far no strong, charismatic opposition leader has emerged to offer a serious challenge.
But the opposition believes that voters will turn against Mr Saakashvili because he used force against his own people.
|Some 500 people were injured during Wednesday's clashes|
"What happened on the streets of Tbilisi will never be forgiven by Georgian society."
Although Mr Saakashvili appears to have calmed the political mood, many grievances remain.
The opposition still accuses him of leading an authoritarian government and failing to stamp out high-level corruption, as he promised to do when he came to office.
It claims that he has abused the legal process, manipulated the judiciary, and jailed political opponents - although his government rejects all these allegations.
Many of the people who took to the streets of Tbilisi remain discontented about the widespread poverty and deprivation in Georgia, which they believe Mr Saakashvili has failed to tackle.
The country is still struggling to recover from years of post-Soviet economic decay, political instability and civil war.
Mr Saakashvili says his free-market reforms, vigorous privatisation programmes and anti-corruption campaigns have put the former Soviet republic on the road to prosperity.
|Many Georgians are upset over poor living conditions|
But many people have suffered as the country goes through a painful transition period, as Mr Saakashvili has admitted.
"It is our everyday concern to resolve and improve the problems of all these people and provide a better future for them," he said earlier this week.
Unemployment is high, and welfare benefits and pensions are low, while the government spends an increasingly large percentage of its budget on defence, as part of Mr Saakashvili's bid to join Nato.
The average income in Georgia is just over $100 a month, according to the World Bank, and prices have escalated this year.
"People are living in very difficult conditions," an opposition supporter called Nino told the BBC.
"I'm a mother, I have no job, and I'm asking the government, what should I do? Prices and bills are rising at the speed of light, and where will I get this money from?"
Desperation about poor living conditions fuelled the discontent which erupted so dramatically on the streets of Tbilisi this week.
Mr Saakashvili has responded to the protesters' main demand by calling snap elections.
Their other grievances could take much longer to address.