Prague, 2 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili has again denounced those he says threaten the territorial integrity of the Southern Caucasus country.
Addressing servicemen of the U.S.-trained 11th Rifle Brigade during a military exercise yesterday, Saakashvili said restoration of Georgia's territorial integrity is a prerequisite to economic prosperity.
"We should be aware that any individual who takes up arms and refuses to submit to the Georgian state is a traitor and should be punished as such."
"We will not be a happy people if we remain a defeated nation. We will not be a happy people if our honor and dignity are flouted by all kinds of separatists, enemies and dwarves. Our economy will not be prosperous until we are able to control our borders. Until we have our own customs, until we are able to control all our seaports, until faceless, insignificant individuals continue to blackmail Georgia's central authorities and every single one of its citizens, life will remain 10, 15, or 20 times worse for every Georgian household," Saakashvili said.
Some Georgian media are interpreting this statement as a threat toward the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which seceded from Tbilisi in the early 1990s. Others believe it was primarily directed at the unruly leadership of the autonomous province of Adjaria.
Nugzar Rukhadze, the English-speaking newscaster of Georgian state television, reported on Saakashvili's speech today by saying the president "pointed out the importance of having a well-trained, well-equipped and efficient army to demonstrate power to the enemies of Georgia's territorial integrity -- meaning [its] external, as well as internal, adversaries. Every Georgian family is looking at you with hope, Saakashvili told servicemen."
Although Adjaria has so far not indicated any desire to secede, relations between Tbilisi and Batumi have been tense since Saakashvili was elected president in January.
Saakashvili blames Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze for failing to meet financial and other obligations toward the central authorities. He has vowed to restore Tbilisi's authority over the region and reassert control over proceeds from customs operations at the port of Batumi and the Sarpi border checkpoint with Turkey.
Abashidze's traditional power base, the Democratic Revival Union party, failed to overcome the 7 percent vote barrier required to enter parliament in the 28 March partial legislative rerun.
The Adjar leader claims the elections were fraudulent. On 31 March, he threatened to organize a regional referendum to show Saakashvili that he still enjoys widespread support in his province.
Georgian authorities have warned Abashidze that any such step would be illegal.
Saakashvili yesterday vowed to rein in members of what he described as "illegal armed gangs" that he said operate on national territory.
"Besides national armed forces, three private armies -- three illegal groups made of armed bandits -- are operating on Georgian soil. Some of their members speak Georgian. We should be aware that any individual who takes up arms and refuses to submit to the Georgian state is a traitor and should be punished as such. Those who are ready to serve Georgia have their place among [our national armed forces]," Saakashvil said.
Saakashvili did not elaborate, but many in the Georgian media speculate he may have been referring to the Adjar security forces, among others.
In comments made to Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency, Abashidze today ruled out any possible dialogue between Tbilisi and Batumi "unless Georgian authorities stop issuing threats." The Adjar leader also said any suggestion Georgia may resort to force against his rule would prompt him to reintroduce the state of emergency he had lifted on the eve of last week's elections.
The Georgian president earlier this week (29 March) said he would ask the national parliament to outlaw the Adjar Security Ministry, which many in Tbilisi see as Abashidze's main bastion of power.
The Georgian government also appears to be experiencing difficulties with its main army unit in Adjaria.
Contacted by RFE/RL, Defense Ministry spokesman Irakli Chikovani confirmed reports that the commanding officer of the 25th Army Brigade, headquartered in Batumi, was dismissed yesterday.
Chikovani did not offer more details on the reasons behind General Roman Dumbadze's dismissal.
But the Tbilisi-based Caucasus Press news agency yesterday quoted Army Chief of Staff Givi Iukuridze as saying Dumbadze was suspected of having sworn allegiance to Abashidze, prompting about 100 of his men to demand their transfer to units loyal to the Georgian government.