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Georgia: President Issues Warning To Adjaria As Controversy Looms Over Regional Vote

Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze Galvanized by his party's expected decisive victory in 28 March legislative polls, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili yesterday issued a warning to leaders of the autonomous republic of Adjaria, demanding they disarm popular militias at once. Meanwhile, the Adjar opposition is calling for early elections in the province to put an end to Aslan Abashidze's rule.

Prague, 30 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili yesterday reiterated his intention to restore the authority of the central government over the unruly autonomous province of Adjaria.

Addressing reporters at a late news briefing, Saakashvili urged Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze to work to disarm popular militias -- one of the key points they reportedly agreed upon during recent talks in Batumi, the region's capital.

"A big battle is awaiting us, a battle to disarm these bandits. I want to warn them that they should not expect any compromise from me. Either they give up their weapons immediately, or I will take steps accordingly. No one should have any illusion with this respect. In Georgia, only official formations will be armed," Saakashvili said.

Adjaria had enjoyed a large degree of autonomy under Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, but tensions have been running high since the change of government that took place in Tbilisi last November.

Abashidze, who supported Shevardnadze against his opponents during last year's crisis, decreed a state of emergency in Adjaria when the Georgian president announced his resignation.

Since his election in January, Saakashvili has vowed to restore Tbilisi's political and financial control over the region. He makes little secret that he sees the recent parliamentary polls as a first step toward installing a more compliant leadership in Adjaria.

Tensions peaked earlier this month when Saakashvili imposed economic sanctions on Adjaria, blocking the Black Sea port of Batumi and the city's airport.

The decision was made the day after Adjar security forces barred Saakashvili from entering the province's Kobuleti District. Citing security concerns, officials in Batumi said they objected to letting dozens of heavily armed troops enter with the Georgian president.

The economic blockade lasted only a few days and ended shortly after Saakashvili and Abashidze held their talks in Batumi.

Addressing supporters at the end of the meeting, Saakashvili announced that, in return for the lifting of sanctions, the Adjar leader had agreed to let representatives of the central government control the province's customs revenues.

The agreement also included lifting the state of emergency in Adjaria and the disarmament of all popular militias. Abashidze has reportedly set up the militias for fear Tbilisi might attempt to regain control over his region by force.

But the Adjar leader later backpedaled, saying the two auditors appointed by Saakashvili to supervise imports and exports at the Batumi seaport and the Sarpi checkpoint on the Georgian-Turkish border would have no real power. Both officials returned to Tbilisi last week after they were prevented from entering their new offices.

Abashidze also made it clear he had neither the intention of disarming armed militias, nor of permanently lifting the state of emergency, which was suspended for the duration of the polls but is expected to be re-imposed at any time.

Abashidze is reportedly trying to force the Georgian government to drop criminal charges against Adjar security officials Tbilisi maintains are suspected of various crimes and to abandon plans to abolish the region's State Security Ministry. He is also pressing Georgian authorities to recant their recent decision to revoke the license of Adjar banks.

But Saakashvili yesterday gave no indication he intends to change his position.

"I have submitted a draft law to parliament, and parliament will pass it as soon as it convenes. This draft says that the Adjar Security Ministry must be abolished and that formations under the ministry must be outlawed because they are made up of bandits. These groups must be disarmed. This is how we see Adjaria, how we see Georgia in general. The supremacy of law must be established in Georgia once and for all," Saakashvili said.

The Georgian president, who already controls the executive and has the upper hand over the judiciary, is expected to win an overwhelming parliamentary majority.

Partial results released early this afternoon by the Central Election Commission (CEC) give the alliance led by Saakashvili's National Movement 66 percent of the votes.

Addressing reporters late this afternoon, CEC chairman Zurab Chiaberashvili said that, with 80 percent of the ballots counted, Abashidze's party now comes in third with 6.96 percent of the votes. That is just below the 7 percent barrier required to enter parliament.

Earlier today, Chiaberashvili had announced that Abashidze's Democratic Revival Union -- also known as Revival -- had come second with nearly 8.3 percent of the votes.

Latest official results suggest that, apart from the ruling coalition, only the opposition New Rights-Industrialists coalition looks set to enter the legislature.

Despite international monitors declaring the vote generally fair, the New Rights-Industrialists coalition and other opposition groups claim the poll was rigged.

Official results show that Revival received more than 50 percent of the vote in Adjaria, ahead of the National Movement, which won 43 percent.

These figures seemingly contradict Saakashvili's claims that the Adjar leader is no longer popular in the region.

Among National Movement candidates in the province were representatives of Our Adjaria, a group that was recently set up to undermine Abashidze's power with the blessing of the central government.

Citing early partial returns that gave Revival not even 1 percent of the vote, Our Adjaria yesterday said the 28 March polls had signaled the end of Abashidze's rule.

One Our Adjaria leader, Eduard Surmanidze, said the time had come to demand that Abashidze step down before his mandate expires in 2006.

"Abashidze is politically bankrupt and nothing can now prevent the organization of early polls [in Adjaria]. Starting from tomorrow [30 March], we will develop our actions along two lines. First, we will prepare the Adjar population for early polls. Second, we will force Abashidze to open dialogue [with us]. If he refuses, then we will resort to active mass protests," Surmanidze said.

"A big battle is awaiting us, a battle to disarm these bandits."
Another Our Adjaria leader, Koba Khabazi, took a similar stance: "The best solution would be if Abashidze himself would understand the situation and leave his post voluntarily. As far as we are concerned, we demand that early elections be held. We will continue fighting until Abashidze's regime ceases to exist in Adjaria and Abashidze himself leaves power."

Georgia's top election official today alleged widespread fraud and intimidation in some of Adjaria's polling stations, saying authorities had been threatening voters, local observers, and members of regional election commissions.

Zurab Chiaberashvili also said the CEC may decide to nullify part of the Adjar vote.

"In nearly all Adjar polling stations, voters lists were inaccurate. There was a great number of cases when ballots were accepted upon presentation of election cards only [instead of election cards and passports].... I believe we will have to annul the results in a great number of polling stations," Chiaberashvili said.

Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, whom Saakashvili dispatched to Adjaria on 28 March to supervise the vote there, gave a different assessment. Talking to reporters yesterday after meeting for nearly three hours with Abashidze, Zhvania said the vote in the Black Sea province was held without any serious irregularities.

"I can say with certainty that the elections -- including the voting process, vote-counting operations, and transportation of ballot boxes -- went generally well," the Georgian prime minister said, adding, "I am happy to say that in Adjaria the 28 March parliamentary elections went without any violations that could be described as alarming."

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