Prague, 31 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The head of Georgia's autonomous republic of Adjaria says he is considering calling a regional referendum to prove to central authorities that he still enjoys widespread support.
In remarks broadcast today on Adjar television, which he controls, Adjar Supreme Council (parliament) Chairman Aslan Abashidze said, "Such a referendum should help determine who the population of Adjaria actually supported in the 28 March parliamentary elections."
Georgian government officials today warned the Adjar leader against such a move, saying any referendum would be "illegal."
Abashidze's comments came shortly before Georgia's election officials released the final results of the 28 March partial parliamentary rerun. The Central Election Commission says the coalition led by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's National Movement-Democrats garnered more than 67 percent of the vote.
The ruling alliance looks set to grab an overwhelming majority of the 150 parliamentary seats that were open to competition. The only other group that overcame the 7 percent threshold required to enter the legislature was the opposition New Rightists-Industrialists alliance, which won 7.6 percent of the vote.
"This is precisely what they're afraid of. They fear democratic elections may take place in Adjaria."
Abashidze's traditional power base, the Democratic Revival Union, garnered only 6 percent of the vote. The Adjar leader will lose his support in the national parliament, although the six pro-Abashidze deputies who were elected in last November's disputed polls from single-mandate constituencies will retain their seats.
Yet, election results would suggest that -- with 52.5 percent of the votes in Adjaria -- Abashidze is still popular in his own region. Saakashvili's National Movement-Democrats finished second in the province with 40 percent.
For the first time since 1991, Abashidze was confronted with an organized opposition -- Our Adjaria -- sponsored by the central government. One Our Adjaria leader, Tamaz Diasamidze, yesterday said the results signal the end of Abashidze's rule.
"This is a great victory. For the first time in 12 years, the [Adjar] opposition has defeated one of the strongest government parties -- I mean the government party of Adjaria -- through democratic and transparent elections. And that happened also in the [Adjar] capital where [Abashidze has] all possible administrative and financial leverage [to influence the polls]. Here, in the heart of Adjaria, we won a resounding victory. Batumi has said that this criminal regime should be ended and that only democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, central government control, order and law should reign," Diasamidze said.
In comments made today on Georgia's private Rustavi-2 television, Abashidze accused the central government of stealing votes from Revival, which he claims finished second in the polls.
By contrast, Georgia's Central Election Commission says that what it calls "serious irregularities" took place in some parts of Adjaria and warns that results from more than a dozen regional polling stations may be invalidated.
Another Our Adjaria leader, Eduard Surmanidze, yesterday reiterated a demand for early elections in the province. "What are we proposing Abashidze that could be possibly illegal? Nothing. We're just telling him: 'Since you claim that the population of Adjaria supports you, let us organize new polls," he said. "Let [the Democratic] Revival [Union] take part in these elections. Then we'll see what happens.' You will get nothing, my dear [Aslan]. This is precisely what they're afraid of. They fear democratic elections may take place in Adjaria."
Both the mandate of the Adjar parliament and that of Abashidze expire in 2006. But Saakashvili has indicated he does not intend to wait until then to restore control over Adjaria. On 29 March, he said he will ask the new Georgian legislature to abolish the Adjar Security Ministry and urged Abashidze to disband all armed militia groups in his region.
Georgian officials say the existence of autonomous security forces in Adjaria runs contrary to the constitution. They blame the Adjar leader for relying on paramilitary groups to sustain what they say is his "personal power."
Adjar authorities have shown no signs of complying with Saakashvili's demands.
Georgian media today quoted Hamlet Chipashvili, Adjaria's envoy to Tbilisi, as saying Abashidze's supporters are planning to join some 200 protesters from the opposition Labor Party who have been picketing the Central Election Commission's building in the Georgian capital. The Labor Party, along with the New Rightists-Industrialists, claim the vote was rigged.
Giorgi Khaindrava is the Georgian minister in charge of relations with Adjaria and separatist authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Talking to journalists today, he said the government will not deny Abashidze's supporters access to the capital. "This is not the first time our fellow countrymen from Adjaria are coming here. We will welcome them with pleasure," he said. "We will never attempt to stop Georgian citizens getting past. Of course, it will have to be a peaceful march. We will welcome them with great pleasure as suits Tbilisi residents."
Rustavi-2 yesterday reported that hundreds of Abashidze supporters were flocking to Batumi ahead of a planned march on Tbilisi.