IN OTHER WORDS:Critical time

These are critical days in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The survival of the country’s hard-won democracy, its aspirations to join NATO and the EU and the once-glowing international reputation of its president, Mikheil Saakashvili, are all suddenly on the line.

Saakashvili is largely to blame for this abrupt crisis. On Wednesday, he betrayed the spirit of the pro-democracy “Rose Revolution” that swept him to power four years ago - declaring a state of emergency, suspending civil liberties, silencing critical news media and ordering a police crackdown on opposition demonstrators.

A day later, under intense domestic and international pressure, Saakashvili agreed to early presidential elections in January, accepting one of the main opposition demands. But it will only mean a return to democracy if full civil liberties are restored immediately.

Until now, Saakashvili has been something of a hero in Washington, for his championship of free markets, his unabashedly pro-American foreign policy and his forthright resistance to Russian meddling in Georgia’s affairs. That gives the Bush administration a clear opportunity, and a clear responsibility, for insisting on an immediate restoration of Georgia’s freedoms and a free and fair presidential election in January.