Prague, 16 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Georgia has imposed a partial economic blockade on its autonomous Black Sea republic of Adjaria in a bid to force the regional leadership to recognize the authority of the central government.
Addressing reporters late yesterday in Tbilisi, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said the measures include restricting the transport of goods by air, sea, and land between the southern province and the rest of Georgia.
Saakashvili said he had decided to impose sanctions after Aslan Abashidze, the pro-Russian chairman of the Adjar Supreme Council (parliament), refused to meet with him to help defuse pre-election tension.
The aim of the economic sanctions is to "exhaust the Adjar leadership's financial resources within two weeks."
"I was ready to meet with Aslan Abashidze today and enter into a dialogue with him," Saakashvili said. "Unfortunately, this dialogue did not take place. This is the reason why I decided to make this unprecedented step and to impose limits and control over the import of all goods through the port of Batumi, the Sarpi customs checkpoint [on the Turkish border] and the Batumi airport. We've been forced to temporarily limit transport of goods through the airport, the port, and land customs checkpoints. This is the first time Georgia has resorted to such measures." he added, in a veiled reference to his predecessor's inability to impose control over the autonomous province.
Adjaria, a tiny region of roughly 3,000 square kilometers, shares a boundary with Turkey, which used to be controlled by Adjaria's own border-guard troops. It remains unclear who is in charge of monitoring the Adjar-Turkish border following the recent change of government in Tbilisi.
Adjaria's capital, Batumi, and its oil terminal are the province's main export outlets. Saakashvili yesterday said that although the sanctions will be "temporary," they may affect shipments of crude oil and refined products from the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan that are exported through Batumi.
Azerbaijan, which ships part of its hydrocarbon production to Batumi, said the partial blockade imposed on Adjaria will not affect its exports. The deputy head of Azerbaijan's National Oil Company, Hosbaht Yusifzade, told reporters today that, in case of necessity, all Azerbaijani oil could be shipped to the Black Sea port of Poti. Poti is north of the administrative border that separates Adjaria from the rest of Georgia.
Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania yesterday inspected the Poti-based naval units that have been ordered to cordon off the Adjar capital. Zhvania, who was accompanied by the head of the Georgian border-guard administration, Badri Bitsadze, said the blockade will be implemented with the utmost severity.
"Patrolling the Batumi port will be implemented by our naval units," he said. "Within a few minutes, these crews will take to the sea, and I wanted to meet those officers and servicemen who will be in charge of carrying out this very important mission. They will have to make sure that the limitations and control imposed by the president of Georgia are implemented."
The Georgian government yesterday held an emergency meeting in Poti to discuss the situation in Adjaria, and it is from there that Zhvania will be supervising the blockade. Georgian media today report seven foreign cargo ships have been prevented from entering Batumi since the start of the blockade.
Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze today offered to go to Batumi to help defuse the tension. In an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Adjar Interior Minister Djemal Gogitidze said the Tbilisi envoy is welcome to hold talks with regional leaders. But he said there is little hope her visit will help reach any breakthrough.
"After what happened, the [so-called] confidence factor is below zero," he said. "It is not up to me to decide such things, but Aslan Abashidze welcomes any form of dialogue. It would be very good if we could resolve this standoff through dialogue and talks. But, I repeat, our confidence toward central authorities is equal to zero."
In the words of Saakashvili, the aim of the economic sanctions is to "exhaust the Adjar leadership's financial resources within two weeks."
Despite a brief respite earlier this year, relations between Tbilisi and Batumi have remained particularly tense since the ouster of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze last November.
Batumi has enjoyed widespread autonomy since Georgia regained its independence in 1991 and fears the new team in power in Tbilisi may move to end its privileges. Saakashvili had denied any such plans, saying he is only eager to restore Tbilisi's administrative control over the unruly province before the 28 March parliamentary polls.
Elections in Adjaria have had a long history of controversy, and Georgia's ruling team is concerned that Abashidze may use the polls to boost his personal support in the national parliament.
Attacks on Georgian reporters and opposition militants close to Saakashvili's National Movement party have been reported recently in Adjaria, triggering protests from Tbilisi.
On 13 March, Adjar police briefly detained Georgian Finance Minister Zurab Nogaideli and expelled him from the province. Batumi justified its decision by saying Nogaideli, a member of the coalition in power in Tbilisi, had come to Adjaria to buy votes ahead of the elections.
The following day, Abashidze's security forces prevented Saakashvili from taking a pre-election tour in Adjaria. This latest incident served as a formal pretext to Tbilisi's decision to impose partial economic sanctions on the province.
Saakashvili yesterday said he had ordered the freezing of all accounts Adjaria has been keeping in Georgian banks.
In addition, the Georgian president reiterated an earlier threat to prosecute all those Adjar officials who he said have been sanctioning attacks on journalists and opponents. Saakashvili also said that Georgia's most-wanted list includes Adjaria's Deputy Interior Minister Davit Bakuradze.
"Georgia's Prosecutor-General [Irakli Okruashvili] today opened a criminal investigation against Adjaria's Deputy Interior Minister Bakuradze, who faces accusations of murder," he said. "Tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, as far as I know, a list of approximately 10 people -- all Adjar officials suspected of various crimes -- will be made public."
Georgian leaders claim Bakuradze is responsible for the assassination of Temur Inaishvili, the Adjar official responsible for supervising the state of emergency imposed in the province after postelection unrest in Tbilisi last November.
Inaishvili was found dead on 18 January on a Batumi street. Adjar authorities have opened an investigation into the suspected murder and suggest Inaishvili may have fallen victim to a personal vendetta. They deny any political motivation.
In comments made to Azerbaijan's ANS television, Abashidze today accused Saakashvili of "playing with fire."
The Adjar leader returned yesterday to Batumi from Moscow, where he reportedly held talks over the weekend with Russian officials. He also imposed a curfew yesterday on his province.
Moscow, which has a military base in Batumi, has traditionally supported Abashidze. Last week, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement in which it accused Tbilisi of plotting to overthrow what it called Adjaria's "legitimate leadership."
Saakashvili yesterday said he had discussed the situation in Adjaria over the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. He also said Prime Minister Zhvania had a similar conversation with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul.
The United States, which has lent full political and economic support to the new Georgian administration, has welcomed Saakashvili's efforts to restore Tbilisi's control over Adjaria. U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli yesterday said Washington is following developments in the region closely and urged both sides to show restraint:
"Secretary Powell has been in touch with President Saakashvili. He spoke with him on Sunday evening. He has also spoken with Russian National Security [Secretary] Igor Ivanov today. Secretary Powell urged President Saakashvili not to allow the situation in Adjaria to escalate.... So I would say we are in touch with all sides. They are meeting to ensure that the situation remains calm and is handled in a way that is consensual and not violent."
Ereli also said the State Department has received assurances from Moscow that Russian troops in Batumi will remain in their barracks unless they come under threat.
Meanwhile, Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov arrived in Adjaria today. Georgia's Rustavi-2 private television station reports Luzhkov entered the province from the Sarpi customs checkpoint, where Abashidze met him. The two men then proceeded to Batumi for talks behind closed doors.
In comments made to Adjar television, Luzhkov blamed Tbilisi for the escalation of tensions but said he had come to help both sides find a compromise: "I regret very much that the situation is getting so tense instead of sitting all at the negotiation table. It is impossible to forcibly change what exists now. If there is a need to try to find a solution to any particular problem, it will be possible only through mutual agreement, only through compromise."
Luzhkov denied any plans to interfere into Georgia's domestic affairs and said he had come only to express support to his "brother" Abashidze.