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Georgia Blockades Separatist Region

President Saakashvili demands that Adzharia recognize central authority after gunmen refuse to let him enter the republic.

March 16, 2004|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Georgia imposed an economic blockade Monday on the rebellious Black Sea region of Adzharia in an attempt to end a tense armed standoff and make good on Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's pledge to assert federal control over his fractured nation.

Facing the first crisis of his presidency, Saakashvili ordered a blockade that his aides said would include the closure of Adzharia's port, airport and land borders after the president's motorcade was blocked from entering the republic by hundreds of Adzhari militiamen.

Georgian leaders have said they were hoping to avoid military conflict, but also said they were serious in their demands that Adzhari leader Aslan Abashidze open the region to Georgian rule and clear the way for open parliamentary elections March 28.

Abashidze declared a state of emergency, and local government officials said troops had been put on "full combat readiness" and 1,000 "peaceful" civilians had moved to the border to act as a "human shield" against possible attack.

"The situation in the republic is very tense. People can't really live and work normally, now that the danger of a military confrontation ... is growing," Tamara Gudava, Abashidze's spokeswoman, said in a telephone interview from the Adzhari capital of Batumi.

"Our people are prepared to protect our motherland from any invasion," she said.

Saakashvili's administration has played down talk of a conflict but has remained firm in its demand that Abashidze recognize Georgia's authority and open the door to political opponents in the upcoming election.

"We don't want any bloodshed. We're ready to negotiate. But what we're not going to compromise on is the fundamental values this country is based on," presidential spokesman Georgy Arveladze said in an interview. "Yes, it's a crisis situation. The ball is in their court. If they want to play hard, we'll play hard."

Saakashvili has pledged to unite the country he took over in January after pro-democracy protesters took to the streets and ousted President Eduard A. Shevardnadze.

The former Georgian leader looked the other way for years as Abashidze and his supporters established an all-but-independent republic. The current election campaign led to confrontations between Abashidze's political opponents, who have become newly confident under Saakashvili, and the Adzhari police. Georgian officials say Abashidze is deeply unpopular but has remained in power by manipulating elections and defying the attempts by outsiders to interfere.

"To be sincere, this is a man who wants to have a feudal system in a modern democratic state," said Alexander Rondeli, a Tbilisi-based political analyst.

On Feb. 21, the office of the Georgian Christian Democratic Union in Adzharia suffered an arson attack, and several opposition leaders have been abducted and beaten.

"Opposition people got telephone calls telling them to get out of Adzharia, or they will be killed. They're under constant pressure. So the president went there yesterday to assert the democratic process. And they didn't let him in," Rondeli said.

"This is the biggest shame that can happen to any modern state, when a president is not let in to part of his own country."

The dispute over the 1,158-square-mile area has regional implications because Russia maintains a military base there. The Adzhari leader was in Moscow on Sunday, and Russia's foreign ministry issued a statement warning Georgia against sending forces into the region.

The U.S. has insisted that Russia remove its bases from Georgia, but appealed for calm in the current confrontation.

"We've been concerned for some time about Russian efforts to sometimes play the card of Adzhari separatism.... But I think everybody needs to exercise restraint so that the current situation doesn't get out of control," a senior U.S. diplomat said Monday.

Adzhari officials believe Saakashvili is bent on toppling Abashidze. "Such an outcome can't be achieved legally, because President Abashidze enjoys 80% of popular support in the republic," Gudava said. "So the Georgian leadership is designing plans to overthrow our president illegally, by means of military or economic pressure.

"Our president is ready for a dialogue with Saakashvili, but not when the president of Georgia appears at our administrative border accompanied by 500 armed men," she added.

Arveladze, who accompanied the Georgian president, said the motorcade had only about 50 security guards and was confronted by about 300 men armed with machine guns and grenade launchers. He said a bridge ahead of the motorcade had been loaded with explosives.

"This was an amazing scene. It was truly something unprecedented," he said. "At that moment, of course, all the security and the military were called and everybody was ready to come and take action. But the president decided to avoid bloodshed and turned around."

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