MOSCOW — The leader of a rebellious Black Sea region resigned early today in the face of sweeping protests against his rule, giving Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili an important victory in his attempt to consolidate his fractured country.
In a dramatic day that saw citizens of the Adzharia region hoisting the Georgian flag in the streets, members of the regional parliament, Cabinet and police defecting in droves and dark warnings of civil war, strongman Aslan Abashidze abruptly accepted the Georgian leader's offer of safe passage and fled in the early morning hours for Russia.
Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania said the regional boss boarded a flight to Moscow with former Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov, who had flown to Adzharia on Wednesday to help mediate a settlement.
Saakashvili, in an early-morning television address, called the resignation "an important step on the way of Georgia's unification, the restoration of the country's unity."
He said he would travel to the Adzharian capital, Batumi, later today to "personally congratulate" the citizens on "the liberation from Aslan Abashidze ... [and] the first successful halt to separatism" in the republics of the former Soviet Union.
Earlier in the day, the Georgian leader declared direct presidential rule in the autonomous region.
Protesters, who had been massing in the streets for days, heard the news of Abashidze's departure after 2 a.m. today and began noisy celebrations. But Abashidze supporters said the forced exile of a leader reelected by popular vote in 2001 marked the end of a meaningful political opposition in Georgia.
"They forced him out of the country. He was the only opposition to the Saakashvili government, and now it's gone," Tsotne Bakuria, spokesman for the Adzharian parliament's foreign affairs committee, said in a telephone interview. "So I don't know what's going to happen next. We're in shock."
The end of the tense standoff broke the hold on power that Abashidze and his associates had enjoyed in the oil-rich region for the last 13 years and provided an important boost for Saakashvili's attempt to extend central government control over a nation in which two other regions have declared their autonomy.
Saakashvili, a 37-year-old U.S.-educated lawyer elected after leading street protests that toppled President Eduard A. Shevardnadze, has vowed to end corruption and preserve Georgia's existence as a unified state in the post-Soviet era.
Adzharia is officially part of Georgia, but the 65-year-old Abashidze ruled it as a virtual fiefdom, with rigorously controlled elections and positions of power granted to his close political associates, analysts said. He withheld payment of many taxes and customs duties from a region that has, in Batumi, the country's major oil shipping port.
"This man Mr. Abashidze is a kind of 'Papa Doc' Duvalier," said Alexander Rondeli, head of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in the nation's capital, Tbilisi, referring to a former dictator of Haiti.
"He wants to have a feudal system in a modern democratic state. He has developed his own mini-empire in Adzharia," Rondeli said shortly before Abashidze stepped down.
Abashidze supporters complain that Saakashvili and his government have misstated the situation, and they say Adzharia has simply sought a more equitable power-sharing arrangement with the central government.
"They have turned on a media campaign against us, and have tried to call us a breakaway region, even though we are loyal citizens of Georgia," said Bakuria, the regional parliament member.
Meeting with U.S. officials in Washington to try to broker a settlement, Bakuria said Adzharian leaders had proposed opening negotiations with the two other breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, to form a federal system of government that included more regional autonomy.
But Abashidze clearly was counting on the support of Russia, which has a military base in the 1,200-square-mile region, though Moscow had emphasized during the crisis the need for a peaceful settlement.
Ivanov's visit resembled a diplomatic trip he made to Georgia in November, which helped bring an end to Shevardnadze's presidency.
This time, he flew into Batumi, met with Abashidze for less than three hours and left with the Adzharian leader on his plane, according to reports from Georgian officials.
Popular support for Abashidze appeared to drop sharply after he ordered the destruction of three bridges linking the region to other areas of Georgia on Sunday in an attempt to stave off a feared military invasion. Demonstrations, supported by Tbilisi, began mounting in Batumi.
"It is completely clear to us now that all these years, Abashidze has worked not in the interests of our people, but in his own interests and the interests of his clan," Tamaz Savukvadze, a legislator from the Alternativa faction of the Adzharian parliament, said by telephone.
"His last action to blow up bridges connecting us to Georgia was
Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.