Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili's final annual address to the nation began on a bitter note Friday as he expressed regret for the heated protests that caused him to retreat to his presidential residence to give the speech.
Hours before Saakashvili was to speak at the National Library, hundreds of protesters gathered in front of it to block its entrances. They scuffled with Saakashvili supporters, including Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava and National Security Council head Giga Bokeria. No serious injuries were reported, but Saakashvili chose to change the speech venue "to avoid bloodshed," his spokeswoman Manana Mandzhgaladze said.
"I want to apologize not only to our people but to representatives of the diplomatic corps for the incident and for the actions of the police, or rather the inaction of the police, because I as the head of state am responsible for ensuring order," Saakashvili said in the televised address, much of which was devoted to laying out his vision for Georgia, including its obtaining a place in the European Union.
The protests underlined the strong tensions in Georgia, whose characteristically quarrelsome politics have grown more vociferous since Saakashvili's party lost control of the parliament in last October's elections.
Saakashvili, whose second term expires this October, initially wanted to give the national address to the parliament. But the legislature denied him permission in connection with his opponents' initiative to strip the president of the power to sack the government and appoint a new one without the parliament's approval.
Saakashvili came to power after leading the 2003 Rose Revolution demonstrations against a fraud-plagued national election. After three weeks of protests, demonstrators led by Saakashvili burst into the parliament, forcing then-President Eduard Shevardnadze to flee and resign.
The U.S.-educated Saakashvili, noted for his intense energy and brash self-confidence, was elected president weeks later and initially earned wide praise for his efforts to reform a corrupt police force and revitalize a sclerotic government.
But opponents denounced him as having authoritarian leanings and said he needlessly antagonized Russia over the Russian-backed separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In 2008, Georgia and Russia fought a brief war after Georgia launched an intense artillery barrage on the capital of South Ossetia.
Saakashvili was also tarnished by a police crackdown on protests in 2009, after which he declared a state of emergency that included media restrictions.
Although he initiated reforms in 2010 to reduce presidential powers, unhappiness with Saakashvili grew and his party lost in October's elections to the Georgian Dream movement of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who became prime minister.
Since Ivanishvili became premier, Georgian authorities have put legal pressure on some of Saakashvili's closest lieutenants and reopened a criminal inquiry into the 2005 death of Zurab Zhvania, who was Saakashvili's first prime minister.
The new parliament also gave amnesty to nearly 200 people it considered political prisoners. Some of them took part in Friday's protest at the national library.
In his address, Saakashvili said his United National Movement party would oppose proposals in parliament to eliminate the direct election of the president and to move the parliament, recently relocated to the city of Kutaisi, back to Tbilisi.
He also called on the parliamentary majority to continue working toward achieving what he called main national goals: "The principle of territorial integrity, a democratic state and the Euro-Atlantic vector." Saakashvili is a strong advocate of bringing Georgia into NATO and the EU.
Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.