Mikhail Saakashvili set to unite Georgia

President Aslan Abashidze of Adzharia resigned exactly one week ago, subsequently leaving that autonomous republic; consequently, that conflict between Tbilisi and Batumi, which threatened to escalate into an armed confrontation, was settled peacefully. We have made the first important step toward uniting Georgia, President Mikhail Saakashvili, who has marked his first 100 days in office and who has now established full control over Adzharia and its very important Black Sea ports, noted. And now a few words about subsequent moves in this direction.

Surely enough, Saakashvili means Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which de facto became independent, after fighting Tbilisi in the early 1990s. (Those conflicts had virtually escalated into civil wars - Ed.) At any rate, neither Sukhumi (the capital of Abkhazia), nor Tskhinvali (the capital of South Ossetia) don't recognize Georgian jurisdiction over their respective territories. Tbilisi controls only one Abkhazian region, namely the Kodori Gorge, as well as some 40 percent of South Ossetia. Naturally enough, both Sukhumi and Tskhinvali ignored Georgian parliamentary elections this past March. Igor Akhba, who serves as Abkhazia's envoy in Moscow, said in this connection that Abkhazia was a sovereign state replete with its own institutions of state authority; moreover, it doesn't have any state-legal relations with Georgia (that were severed in 1992), he added. South Ossetia's mission in Moscow voiced a similar position on this score. South Ossetia is an independent state, which doesn't interfere in the domestic affairs of another state, mission officials noted, also reminding that South Ossetia had passed its independence declaration and elected its first president December 9, 1990.

This steadfast position on the part of Sukhumi and Tskhinvali is highly unlikely to change overnight. The President of Georgia did say after the latest parliamentary elections that subsequent parliamentary elections will involve Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, Saakashvili's statement isn't backed by any solid guarantees. The new leader is unlikely to ensure Georgia's reunification. Saakashvili, who remains quite optimistic after Abashidze's resignation, keeps saying that Tbilisi will act peacefully but insistently.

However, the Adzharian scenario is perceived as something unacceptable by Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Saakashvili has no reason to hope that both "prodigal sons" will return peacefully under Tbilisi's wing.

One should admit that Adzharia has never aspired for independence; nor did Abashidze hatch any separatist plans whatsoever. On the contrary, Abashidze made it a point of being openly loyal to Eduard Shevardnadze and his government. For his own part, Shevardnadze tolerated Abashidze's regional authoritarianism in exchange for the Abkhazian leader's much-needed loyalty during those times of trouble. Therefore one can say that the Tbilisi-Batumi conflict lacked any separatist or ethnic aspects at all. You see, Adzharians, who have well-nigh the same ethnic background, as Georgians do, are mostly Moslems. At the same time, Abkhazians and Ossetians are independent ethnic groups differing from the Georgian ethnic group; consequently, this difference can't be overlooked. Looks like, Tbilisi understands this. For instance, Georgy Khaindrava, Georgia's state minister for settling conflicts, said the other day that the Adzharian conflict should not be compared to Abkhazian or South Ossetian conflicts. Power had been usurped in Adzharia; still that didn't amount to a political or ethnic conflict, Khaindrava noted. Meanwhile political conflicts had escalated into an inter-ethnic stand-off in Tskhinvali and Sukhumi, Khaindrava stressed. The elimination of tensions between Abkhazians, Ossetians and Georgians is our main task, Khaindrava went on to say. We consider efforts to overcome inter-ethnic confrontation, to restore good-neighborly relations and constitutional order as a top-priority aspect of settling these conflicts, Khaindrava believes.

How can these good intentions be translated into life at a time when Tbilisi, Sukhumi and Tskhinvali can't reach consensus? What is Tbilisi hoping for? Saakashvili recently hinted at economic leverage, which would apparently be used by him during dialogue with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Such economic leverage was nowhere to be seen in the past; however, that unruly Abashidze has now quit the scene, with Tbilisi attaching priority to key Adzharian seaports, Batumi, first and foremost. Abkhazia, which is also washed by the Black Sea, lacks a similar port; nonetheless, it can't be subjected to economic pressure because the Georgian economy was wrecked completely over the last decade.

Tbilisi hopes to suggest a new Georgian-state model to Sukhumi and Tskhinvali, perceiving this as yet another tempting alternative. The proposed model will stipulate clear-cut and equitable rights for all indigenous ethnic groups, i.e. Georgians, Abkhazians and Ossetians, also guaranteeing equal national-development opportunities. Tbilisi's idea of justice apparently implies the asymmetrical-federation concept, which would provide Abkhazia and South Ossetia with additional terms of reference; however, Adzharia would be entitled to fewer prerogatives than the latter two republics.

What if economic leverage doesn't work? And what if Sukhumi and Tskhinvali dislike the projected Georgian-state model? So, what happens then? It should be mentioned here that Saakashvili has promised his voters that he will restore Georgian unity, no matter what.

The conflict between Saakashvili and Abashidze, which was settled without any drastic measures whatsoever, could have escalated into war. Saakashvili, who has drive, is determined to restore Georgian unity, no matter what; still he should understand this problem can't be solved by force. Among other things, this is proved convincingly by the 1992-1993 Georgian-Abkhazian military conflict; Russian peace-keepers are now maintaining law and order along the border, which divides Georgia and Abkhazia.

Russia has always advocated the preservation of Georgia's territorial integrity rather consistently. At the same time, Moscow, which has always believed that this difficult problem can't be solved by force, still adheres to this position. Russia is ready to render every possible assistance in facilitating constructive dialogue between Tbilisi, Sukhumi and Tskhinvali; among other things, this is proved by its participation in the Adzharian peace settlement. Most importantly, all concerned parties should confirm their readiness for such dialogue.

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