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Georgia: President Announces End Of Partial Blockade On Adjaria

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said today he will order that the partial blockade imposed on the autonomous Black Sea province of Adjaria be lifted. RFE/RL reports on the latest developments.

Prague, 18 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili addressed a crowd of supporters and opponents today after more than three hours of talks with Adjar Supreme Council (parliament) Chairman Aslan Abashidze in Batumi. He announced that economic sanctions will end at midnight (9 p.m. Prague time) tonight.

"There was no [full] blockade. There were only limitations. These limitations will be lifted at midnight tonight because all the issues that have led to the current misunderstanding -- not the conflict, but the misunderstanding -- between the region's leadership and the Georgian government have been solved," Saakashvili said.

Saakashvili said he and the Adjar leader had agreed on all main outstanding issues between Tbilisi and Batumi. "We solved all main issues. What were these issues about? They were about the conduct of free elections across the whole Georgian territory, including [Adjaria]; free movement of people; a free election campaign; and the disarmament of local militiamen," he said.

There has been no immediate comment from Abashidze or the Adjar leadership.

Tensions between Batumi and Tbilisi boiled over on 15 March when Saakashvili decreed a partial blockade of Adjaria in a bid to force the regional leadership to recognize the authority of his government. The Georgian government also froze the assets of all Adjar banks.

The decision to impose sanctions was made the day after Adjar security forces denied Saakashvili and dozens of heavily armed security forces access to the province. The Georgian president had been due to meet voters in Adjaria's Kobuleti District ahead of the 28 March parliament elections.

Georgian central authorities fear the Adjar leadership may try to rig the vote in a bid to maintain seats in the national parliament. They also cite recent attacks on Saakashvili supporters and Georgian reporters as evidence that the regional leadership is getting increasingly nervous as the election approaches.

Plamen Nikolov, a representative of Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer, said in Batumi today that Abashidze has given his consent to the creation of an election observer mission in Batumi ahead of the 28 March elections.

Adjar authorities, in turn, claim Abashidze and his Democratic Revival Union party are popular enough to win a large number of votes and accuse Tbilisi of plotting a change of regime in Batumi.

Adjaria has enjoyed widespread autonomy since Georgia regained its independence in 1991. But central authorities have long blamed Abashidze for not meeting all of his financial obligations to the national budget, as well as other commitments.

Saakashvili today said he had agreed with Abashidze on a mechanism that will ensure Tbilisi gets its due share of customs fees from all goods entering the country. "I believe we had a principled and very frank discussion. We've reached a number of concrete decisions, including on the customs issue, on how to implement customs control at the Turkish-Georgian border, in the city port of Batumi," he said. "We agreed to set up a new post of president's representative who, in conjunction with regional authorities, will assume controlling functions. That will help avoid any possible misunderstanding."

The standoff had raised concern of possible armed confrontation. Following the introduction of sanctions, both sides had beefed up security along the administrative border that separates Adjaria from the rest of Georgia.

The European Union yesterday released a statement in which it urged both sides to show restraint and settle their dispute through dialogue. While reaffirming its support to Georgia's territorial integrity, the 15-member bloc called upon Tbilisi and Batumi to "refrain from any further escalation that could result in violence." Also yesterday, Turkey said it is concerned about stability in the South Caucasus and expressed hope that Batumi and Tbilisi will normalize ties soon.

In comments made yesterday, Saakashvili said he is committed to preserving peace in Georgia. But he also issued a veiled threat to the Adjar leader, saying he would not hesitate to resort to force if necessary. "I would like to say that this morning, the [Georgian Army's] Komandos [elite] battalion performed a very good military exercise," he said. "We saw that Georgia has the one of the best armed forces in the region. Everyone should take this into account. I will not retreat from anything when it comes to protecting Georgia's interests. But I will do everything to maintain civil peace in Georgia."

Referring to the public oath he made after his election, the Georgian president went on to say it was his historical responsibility to repair the consequences of the separatist conflicts that broke Georgia apart in the early 1990s and to restore the country's territorial integrity.

"I have an obligation before Georgia's history. It is to unite Georgia, to make Georgia a unified country. I took this oath at the grave of [Georgia's 12th-century King] Davit Agmashnebeli [David the Builder] in Gelati, and I have not forgotten a single word of it. All regional leaders, all citizens of Georgia, must keep this in mind. I am very open to all kinds of dialogue, but at the same time, everyone should know that we will be very consistent," Saakashvili said.

After his meeting with Abashidze, Saakashvili vowed that the restoration of Georgia's territorial integrity will start in the Black Sea province. "Adjaria will be free within a unified Georgia," the Georgian leader said.