Prague, 4 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Violent clashes erupted in the streets of Adjaria's capital of Batumi today, as security forces loyal to Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze beat back hundreds of protestors with truncheons and water cannons.
Reports from Batumi say crowds opposed to Abashidze's policies took to the streets in separate protests that were violently dispersed by the security forces.
The demonstrations took place shortly after Abashidze declared a state of emergency and a curfew in the region and closed all secondary schools and universities for two weeks. One protestor, who gave his first name as Achiko, described today's events.
"They [security forces] were beating people on the head. I saw people with bleeding heads and some were nearly unconscious. I saw some women with blood on their faces. After they dispersed our demonstration, these madmen [security forces] went to the offices of the 'Our Adjaria' [opposition] movement and demolished everything. Not a single window was left unbroken. The situation in Batumi remains very tense," he said.
Another protestor, teacher Khatuna Tavdigiridze, who took part in a related demonstration, gave her version of events: "We had just organized a street march and the police tried to block our way. But then we started a rally in a school next to the university and the police tried twice to disperse that meeting. They were able to disperse us into several groups and my group joined a protest organized by university teachers. One hour later, we saw people from the special forces and a fire truck, and they used water cannons [against the protesters]."
Today's protesters are another sign of the escalation of tensions around Adjaria and its rebellious leader. Abashidze today appeared on local television to defend his decision on 2 May to blow up bridges, including a rail line, connecting Adjaria to the rest of Georgia. Abashidze said he undertook the move as a defensive measure to avoid a Georgian military offensive.
Saakashvili, in the opinion of most analysts, cannot afford to back down in this test of wills without endangering his own hold on power.
In Tbilisi, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili condemned the move and he accused retired Russian Major General Yurii Netkachov of being behind the operation. While being careful not to directly blame Moscow for the bridge explosions, Saakashvili called on the Russian authorities to do everything in their power to stop Netkachov from acting to destabilize the situation even further.
Abashidze has long counted prominent Russian officials among his friends. But according to Robert Parsons, director of RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Moscow's leverage may be limited in this particular crisis, especially if Abashidze -- feeling threatened by Saakshvili's drive to reimpose central authority -- feels war is the best way for him to preserve his personal power. And although relations between Tbilisi and Moscow are improving, Saakashvili will likely be reluctant to accept Russia's mediation efforts, if offered.
"Russia certainly does have leverage with Adjaria, in particular with Aslan Abashidze. Traditionally, he's had close ties with certain sections inside the Russian military and with a number of businessmen and also the mayor of Moscow, Yurii Luzhkov. These are people who certainly have influence and certainly they're interested in a peaceful resolution of the situation in Adjaria. It's a different matter, though, whether the Russians now will be prepared or willing or able even to persuade Aslan Abashidze to back down. Certainly it's unlikely that they're prepared to use the Russian military forces that are in Batumi at the moment -- about 2,000 men in the garrison there," Parsons said.
Parsons noted that Abashidze's decision to cut road and rail links with the rest of Georgia significantly aggravates the situation. If the links are not restored soon, the economic impact for the region as a whole could be grave.
"The cutting of the road links and the cutting of the rail links are critically important for everybody in the region, not just for the Georgians but also the Armenians as well. Armenia is dependent on the port of Batumi for imports and exports. Without it, the situation in Armenia, which is critical enough as it is, could become catastrophic. In Georgia, too, the incipient economic recovery of the last few months could well be jeopardized if this standoff between Adjaria and the central authorities is allowed to continue," Parsons said.
Saakashvili now finds himself in a very difficult position. Since coming to power, he has staked his reputation on reimposing law and order throughout the country and issued a series of ultimatums to Abashidze, who continues to flout his authority.
Saakashvili, in the opinion of most analysts, cannot afford to back down in this test of wills without endangering his own hold on power. Although today's demonstrations in Batumi are clear evidence of opposition in the region to Abashidze's authoritarian rule, Parsons does not believe Adjaria's leader will be toppled from within.
"I think at the moment the opposition in Adjaria is not strong enough to depose Aslan Abashidze from within. He has ruled the province by fear for the last few years and that still is a very potent force for him in Adjaria. Some people have been protesting, we've seen it on the streets today and they've paid a heavy price. A lot of them have been beaten, we've seen pictures of bloodshed on the streets of Batumi today. It's unlikely I think that the people of Adjaria will rise against Aslan Abashidze to try and overthrow him," Parsons said.
Ironically, unlike the other separatist conflicts that have rocked Georgia in recent years, Adjaria's rebellion is not fueled by ethnic or religious motives, according to Parsons. "There is no ethnic component to the situation in Adjaria," he said. "Approximately 90 percent of the population is composed of ethnic Georgians. The remainder are a mix of Armenians, Russians, Greeks, and others. There is a minor religious factor in that a relatively large minority of the population are Muslims. Traditionally, this has been a Muslim part of Georgia. However, these days, the greater part of the population is either atheist or Christian."
The future of Georgia now appears to be in the hands of two strong-willed and angry leaders -- Mikheil Saakashvili and Aslan Abashidze, with few venturing to predict how the crisis will end.
(RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report.)