Prague, 17 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze today went to Batumi, the capital of the autonomous republic of Adjaria, in an effort to defuse tension between regional authorities and the central government in Tbilisi ahead of the 28 March parliamentary elections.
Burdjanadze, accompanied by State Security Minister Zurab Adeishvili, is scheduled to meet with Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze and other officials.
"The Georgian authorities want to settle this problem peacefully and find a way out of this situation. But, on the other hand, they cannot tolerate that one region -- in that particular case, Adjaria -- should be separated from the rest of the country and that the president should be denied access to one part of national territory."
Talking to reporters upon her arrival at Batumi airport, the Georgian envoy said Tbilisi is committed to solving the standoff peacefully. "The situation is complex. Our main task is to defuse the tension. We are willing to settle all our problems through peaceful means. It is important that constitutional order be restored in Georgia and that the conditions are met so that elections are conducted normally across the country," Burdjanadze said.
The crisis boiled over on 15 March when Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili imposed a partial economic blockade on Adjaria in an attempt to force regional leaders to recognize the authority of his government. An incident the day before, when Adjar security forces refused Saakashvili permission to enter the Black Sea province on a pre-election tour, served as the spark that led to the imposition of sanctions.
Addressing reporters late yesterday after talks with Saakashvili, Burdjanadze criticized the Adjar leadership over the incident. But she said that, despite the seriousness of the crisis, she believes there is room for dialogue and compromise.
"The Georgian authorities want to settle this problem peacefully and find a way out of this situation. But, on the other hand, they cannot tolerate that one region -- in that particular case, Adjaria -- should be separated from the rest of the country and that the president should be denied access to one part of national territory. That simply means that this part of national territory does not recognize the authority of the central authorities. But I'm sure there is a way out," Burdjanadze said.
Later, Burdjanadze told journalists she is confident her visit to Batumi will bring results, although she cautioned that it is impossible to solve all the problems that exist between Adjaria and Georgia in one day.
Burdjanadze yesterday talked with Abashidze on the telephone to discuss the possibility of a meeting between the Adjar leader and Saakashvili. She also met with Russia's ambassador to Tbilisi, Vladimir Chkhikvishvili. Georgian officials have also discussed the Adjaria crisis with Richard Miles, the U.S. ambassador to Tbilisi.
The United States, which has lent full support to Saakashvili's government, has approved of its efforts to restore Tbilisi's authority over the unruly province. Yet, it has warned the Georgian leadership against any attempts to solve the crisis forcibly. U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli yesterday renewed Washington's call for restraint.
"We continue to watch the situation very closely. We are in contact with both sides. I think that we support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia. And I would also note that, given the central government's responsibility to ensuring that the 28 March parliamentary elections are as democratic as possible, it is particularly important to keep things together in Adjaria, as well as the rest of the country," Ereli said.
Tensions are running high in Adjaria on the eve of the polls, as Tbilisi works to set up an opposition to Abashidze. Violent clashes pitting supporters of the Adjar Supreme Council (parliament) chairman against pro-Saakashvili activists have taken place recently in Batumi. In addition, Tbilisi blames the Adjar government for being behind a series of attacks on Georgian reporters and says this is yet another indication that the region's leadership is getting increasingly nervous as the election approaches.
Georgian Prosecutor-General Irakli Okruashvili yesterday said his office will prosecute six Adjar security officials suspected of harassing journalists and opposition supporters. Okruashvili also said criminal proceedings will be launched against Adjar Interior Minister Djemal Gogitidze and other officials who allegedly ordered that Saakashvili be prevented from visiting the province's Kobuleti district.
"Regarding [the 14 March] events, we opened a criminal investigation under the following articles -- violation of Georgia's territorial integrity, usurpation of military command, and refusal to obey the country's legitimate authority. With this regard, Adjar Interior Minister Djemal Gogitidze appears to be the main organizer. But, as he is a member of [Georgia's national] parliament, we need first to secure the approval of parliament to open a criminal investigation against him. We will file a request within the next few days, and it will be up to parliament to decide when it gives its consent. Also responsible [for the events] are Adjar Security Minister Soso Gogitidze, Deputy Interior Minister Davit Bakuradze, and Kobuleti administration head Tariel Khalvashi." Okruashvili said.
Adjar authorities have not reacted yet to Okruashvili's statement.
Georgian authorities have persistently denied they are considering abolishing Adjaria's autonomous status or overthrowing Abashidze's regime by force. While not concealing they would welcome Abashidze's departure, they maintain the Adjar leader should be removed from power only through elections.
Claiming that Saakashvili won more than 95 percent of the Adjar vote in January's presidential elections, the Georgian government says the upcoming legislative polls will spell the end of Abashidze's regime. Adjar officials in turn say the Georgian leader is not popular in the region and that his supporters will be defeated in this month's parliamentary elections.
Given the secretive nature of his regime, it is difficult to assess the actual strength of Abashidze's positions. The Adjar leader, however, can rely on his links with Russia to help him maintain his rule.
Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, who arrived in Batumi yesterday to show his support for Abashidze, blamed Tbilisi for escalating tension in the region. Russia, which maintains a military base in Batumi, has traditionally maintained good relations with the Adjar leadership. The Russian Foreign Ministry last week issued a statement in which it accused the Georgian government of plotting to overthrow Abashidze.
Recent tension between Batumi and Tbilisi has triggered speculations that Moscow may be considering lending military support to the Adjar leader should Tbilisi resort to force to solve the crisis. But Russian Ambassador Chkhikvishvili yesterday reiterated that his country will not interfere in the crisis.
"Russian military equipment remains in the premises of the [Batumi] base and other army facilities and will remain there in the future. We have received instructions to observe the strictest neutrality and to not interfere in [Georgia's] domestic affairs. These instructions were issued by Defense Minister [Sergei Ivanov]," Chkhikvishvili said.
Meanwhile, the Georgian leadership seems eager to appease Moscow's concerns.
Saakashvili discussed the Adjar crisis with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the phone. Today, Georgian National Security Council Secretary Vano Merabishvili went to Moscow to brief officials there on the latest regional developments. Merabishvili is expected to meet with his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The Georgian envoy is expected back in Tbilisi tomorrow.