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Analysis: Is Georgia Planning To Snatch Abashidze?

Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze Georgian leaders' increasingly bellicose rhetoric, in conjunction with the deployment of Georgian heavy armor to the internal border between Adjaria and the rest of Georgia for military exercises, have fuelled fears that the Georgian leadership is planning a military incursion to try to oust Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze.

Any such military intervention could, however, encounter fierce resistance from Abashidze's armed supporters currently encamped on the Adjar side of the internal border. And the use of military force would reflect negatively on Tbilisi given repeated statements by the U.S., Russia, and international organizations calling for restraint and for the Georgian and Adjar leadership to resolve their differences by means of political dialogue.

Caucasus Press on 28 April estimated that the manpower at Abashidze's disposal does not exceed 2,000 Interior Ministry troops plus 8,000 armed civilian volunteers and a small rapid deployment brigade trained by a retired Russian general, whereas the Georgian armed forces number 18,000 men. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili claimed on 9 April that Abashidze also has two T-72 tanks, and several armored personnel carriers, helicopters, and long-range artillery systems. Over the past week, Georgian media have reported the defections to the central Georgian government of dozens, if not hundreds, of army, police, and security personnel based in Adjaria, including some members of the crack rapid reaction force.

While that erosion of support for Abashidze could facilitate a military intervention, remarks on 28 April by Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Baramidze suggest that Tbilisi favors an entirely different scenario, and that the maneuvers on the internal border are intended to mislead and to divert attention from the true objective, which is to launch a commando raid and arrest Abashidze in Batumi. Georgian parliament deputy Givi Bokeria said in Tbilisi on 28 April that the Georgian leadership has no choice but to arrest Abashidze, Caucasus Press reported.

Also on 28 April, Russian agencies quoted as saying his ministry is capable of launching a police operation in Adjaria if all efforts to resolve the standoff peacefully fail. Indeed, the Georgian police have already demonstrated their ability to do so, when in mid-January they snatched former Georgian railways head Akaki Chkhaidze from a hospital in Batumi. And in late March, Georgian police and special-purpose troops launched a major operation to round up a crime gang in Svaneti (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 March 2004). Scheduling Abashidze's arrest for the first weekend in May would ensure that any negative publicity that could result from his accidental death while resisting arrest would be eclipsed by the euphoria surrounding EU expansion.