Tbilisi-Batumi conflict reaches a dangerous point

The tensions between the leadership of Georgia and Adzharia (a Georgian autonomy) are growing.

The prospect of the sides reaching a compromise is very doubtful, because the very figure of Aslan Abashidze, the Adzharian leader, is unacceptable for Georgia's new leader Mikhail Saakashvili. Mr. Abashidze was very wary, if not negative about the so-called velvet revolution of last November in Tbilisi, which toppled Eduard Shevardnadze, and like many other politicians saw it as a coup.

Mr. Saakashvili's election slogans included the restoration of unity and territorial integrity of the country, which has been split since the USSR's disintegration. Abkhazia has become a self-proclaimed republic, while South Ossetia and even Western Georgia, which is still loyal to first Georgia's president Zviad Gamsakhurdia who was deposed in 1992 and killed a year later, are also speaking about their independence. So Mikhail Saakashvili inherited a split country where the centre controls only a small area around Tbilisi.

Mr. Saakashvili decided to begin with Adzharia, though its experienced leader Aslan Abashidze has always been fairly loyal to the central authorities. He supported President Shevardnadze and never brought up the subject of Adzharia's independence. But Shevardnadze was forced to leave, and the new trio of Saakashvili-Burdzhanadze-Zhvania apparently wants to see a more obedient figure than Aslan Abashidze as the Adzharian leader. This would allow complete control to be established over Adzharia's finances and ports, above all Batumi, which plays a very important role in Georgia's life support system. Clearly, this obvious ambition to get rid of Mr. Abashidze could not but lead to an appropriate response from this politician, who has considerable influence in Adzharia and Georgia. Consequently, a conflict has erupted and it is becoming increasingly serious. Indeed, although it has not yet turned into an armed one, this possibility does exist.

The Adzharian leadership claims that Tbilisi is preparing an armed invasion of the autonomy. Tbilisi denies the claims. Mr. Saakashvili recently said, "No large-scale military actions can take place, particularly in Adzharia." In his words, "Adzharian residents fully support Tbilisi's policy - if the local leader does not like it, it is his own problem." "We shall find a quick and peaceful solution in Adzharia," said Mr. Saakashvili. He did not elaborate though. The Georgian parliament headed by Nino Burdzhanadze adopted a statement on April 23, which in particular demanded that the Georgian authorities provide a single constitutional space in the country and take measures to disarm illegal armed formations in Adzharia. In reply, the Adzharian local parliament declared a state of emergency in Adzharia, and a curfew in Batumi.

The Adzharian leadership added fuel to the fire by refusing to accept a cargo with mineral fertilisers from Tbilisi. Aslan Abashidze explained it by saying, "We had information that the cargo contained not only mineral fertilisers for Adzharian farmers but also TNT."

Mr. Abashidze has proposed that he and the Georgian leadership sit down at the negotiation table and discuss all the problems facing Tbilisi and Batumi. At the same time, he stated, "Mr. Saakashvili is seeking to organise a velvet revolution in Adzharia, but nothing will come of it." When commenting on the statement from the Georgian Interior Minister, Georgy Baramidze, about the possibility of a police operation in Adzharia, Mr. Abashidze said the autonomy would defend its constitutional regime. "If the interior ministry carries out a special operation, it will be met with the relevant response from our commandos," said the Adzharian leader.

Tbilisi has already accused the Adzharian leadership of complicity in an assassination attempt on Mikhail Saakashvili, and Aslan Abashidze has in turn stated that the central Georgian leadership was preparing a special operation to eliminate him. With this in mind, the conflict between Tbilisi and Batumi has apparently gone too far, and Georgia, which has gone through two civil wars with Abkhazia and South Ossetia already, is now on the brink of a third war with Adzharia.

This war would have the most disastrous consequences for the Georgian state, which could then collapse. The policy of strong pressure on the autonomies pursued by the new Georgian leadership has absolutely no future. The only possible solution can be reached through negotiations, a patient constructive dialogue with due account for the interests of the autonomy and the centre.

Russia is ready to act as an intermediary in this dialogue. It was Moscow who helped stop the Georgian-Abkhazian war in 1992, and now Russian peacekeepers are doing a lot to prevent a new conflict between Tbilisi and Sukhumi. Moscow went to great effort to arrange the mid-March meeting between Mikhail Saakashvili and Aslan Abashidze. Unfortunately, the agreements reached then are not being implemented. Moscow deems it necessary to organise a new meeting and new negotiations. Russia has always supported Georgia's territorial integrity and still believes that it needs to be preserved, while it considers Tbilisi's pressure on the autonomies to be counter-productive and dangerous. As one of the strongest and most authoritative Caucasus powers, Russia is interested in peace and stability in the Caucasus. This is the country's principled, consistent and unquestionable position.

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