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Georgia: Tensions Increase Around Adjaria Ahead Of Election Rerun

Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze The situation in Adjaria is once again heating up ahead of the 18 April legislative runoff in two districts of the autonomous Georgian republic. Georgian officials sent to Adjaria to supervise preparations for the vote claimed yesterday they had been run out of the region. The unrest comes as Tbilisi is stepping up demands to disband armed militias operating in the republic.

Prague, 15 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Two Georgian officials appointed to supervise the 18 April votes in Adjaria's Khulo and Kobuleti districts yesterday returned unexpectedly to Tbilisi.

The two men, Zhanri Kalandadze and Zaza Gorozia, claimed they were forced to leave the region under duress. Gorozia told reporters that dozens of supporters of Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze took him from his hotel in Kobuleti and expelled him from the town after seizing ballots and other documents. Kalandadze, for his part, said he left Khulo on his own initiative, after hearing rumors that armed residents of the town were intending to force him to leave.

Zurab Chiaberashvili, the chairman of Georgia's Central Election Commission (CEC), was later denied entry to Adjaria. He called upon the Prosecutor-General's Office to investigate the incidents, and said the situation in the province is raising serious concerns.

"The situation in Adjaria -- in particular in Khulo and Kobuleti -- is extremely serious. As a matter of fact, the question of whether the [18 April] elections will take place -- in other words, whether Georgian laws will apply on the territory of Adjaria -- is being decided by people bearing arms," Chiaberashvili said.

A major bone of contention between Tbilisi and Adjaria's capital Batumi is the alleged presence in the republic of pro-Abashidze armed militia groups.
The election comes after the CEC, citing irregularities, invalidated the Khulo and Kobuleti results in the 28 March national polls and called for a fresh vote. The March elections themselves were a partial rerun of disputed polls last year. Protests over that original vote led to the resignation of then-President Eduard Shevardnadze.

The CEC decision to hold a fresh vote in the two Adjar districts has caused an uproar in the autonomous republic, which is engaged in a bitter sovereignty dispute with the new Georgian leadership. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is eager to see Abashidze replaced with a more compliant leader, and argues the Adjar leader's popularity is waning.

But the pro-Abashidze Democratic Revival Union won an easy majority in Adjaria, coming in far ahead of the coalition led by Saakashvili's own National Movement. Still, on a national level, Revival fell just short of the 7 percent of the vote needed to gain parliamentary seats -- even before the Khulo and Kobuleti results were invalidated.

Abashidze supporters say the invalidation of the results is an attempt to cut back the 52 percent of the vote Revival received in Adjaria. Khulo and Kobuleti represent roughly one-third of Adjaria's electorate. Revival says it opposes a new vote and has appealed to Georgia's Supreme Court to overturn the CEC decision.

Members of the Tbilisi-based Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA) are also critical of the vote invalidation and have filed a separate appeal to the Supreme Court. They say election officials violated procedure by issuing district-wide nullifications rather than examining each polling station individually.

Georgian officials deny any wrongdoing. But GYLA Chairwoman Tinatin Khidasheli said the CEC's determination to hold a fresh vote will only make the situation worse. "This will definitely provoke the Adjar leadership -- as we've seen today [14 April], when they denied access to officials appointed by the CEC," she said. "As far as I know, they even confiscated ballot papers and all documentation related to the upcoming elections. Not only the CEC top officials, but also the country's leadership should have anticipated that this would happen. They should have thought about the consequences beforehand."

In Tbilisi, the government is showing growing impatience with the Adjar issue. Saakashvili and his cabinet have been trying to restore central control over the republic. They want the region to contribute in full to the national budget and bring its legislation in line with the Georgian Constitution.

A major bone of contention between Tbilisi and Adjaria's capital Batumi is the alleged presence in the republic of pro-Abashidze armed militia groups. Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania on 13 April met with Abashidze in Batumi, but failed to obtain a pledge to disarm the groups and disband the republic's State Security Ministry.

Zhvania yesterday suggested Georgia may turn to the international community to help restore control over Adjaria. "In Batumi people are afraid to go out in the streets after 6 or 8 p.m.," he said. "What, under these circumstances, are [Georgia's] president and cabinet ministers supposed to do? Should they close their eyes and ignore the problems faced by 200,000 or 300,000 of their fellow citizens? This is why I think we should, in coordination with [Foreign Minister Salome] Zurabishvili, work on a plan to enhance cooperation with the international community. What I mean is that the international community should be more actively involved in solving these problems."

Council of Europe special envoy Plamen Nikolov has held several meetings with Abashidze over the past two weeks to help Tbilisi and Batumi reach a power-sharing agreement. But no breakthrough has been made.

Meanwhile, a new mediator has volunteered to help resolve the standoff. Georgian businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili, a long-time ally of Russian exiled tycoon Boris Berezovskii, arrived in Batumi today for talks with Abashidze. Patarkatsishvili, who yesterday was elected chairman of the Union of Major Taxpayers business group, believes political initiatives have so far proved inefficient and that only economic measures can help solve the ongoing crisis.

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