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Georgian Leader Gives Ultimatum To Adjaria

3 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Tensions between Georgia's central authorities and the breakaway Adjar Autonomous Republic are mounting in the wave of an ultimatum delivered yesterday by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Saakashvili gave the republic 10 days to cease its violations of Georgian law and to disarm its paramilitaries.

"We had a meeting of the Security Council where we have decided, one last time, to give a deadline to [Adjar leader] Aslan Abashidze," Saakashvili said. "We will give him 10 days to return to Georgia's constitutional framework, to stop violations of human rights, arrests, and beatings -- like, for example, [on 2 May] several journalists and some other people were beaten up."

Speaking in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, Saakashvili told reporters that if Adjaria's leadership does not meet his demands, he will be forced to consider dissolving the region's state bodies and calling new elections.

"[Abashidze] has to restore normal legal activities in the region and begin disarming," Saakashvili said. "If [the actions] mentioned are not achieved within 10 days, then the president of Georgia will have to use his constitutional right to dissolve local state bodies and hold new local elections on Adjaria's territory -- preserving, at the same time, Adjaria's autonomy and democratic status and giving the Adjar people the opportunity for free choice."

Saakashvili said he has hopes there will be a "peaceful solution" to the situation.

Moscow, which has a military base in Batumi, the capital of the breakaway region, has weighed in on the dispute. The Russian Foreign Ministry warned the Georgian government yesterday that any use of force in the situation would have "catastrophic consequences."

Walter Schwimmer, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, the democracy watchdog that in the past has mediated between Saakashvili and Abashidze, described the row as "an extremely dangerous escalation."

Saakashvili made his demands after forces in Adjaria yesterday blew up bridges connecting the region to the rest of Georgia. The Adjar leader called the decision a "preventive" measure against possible military action by the Georgian authorities against him.

The bridge blasts coincided with the final day of large-scale maneuvers by the Georgian military, which were being conducted near the administrative border with Adjaria.

Tensions between Tbilisi and Batumi heightened in March after Saakashvili was prevented from entering the region. The immediate crisis subsided after a deal was reached between the two leaders, but hostility has steadily increased ever since, with Georgia accusing Adjaria of reneging on the agreement.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania said he has told UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that Georgia is fostering better relations with Russia in order to help resolve the dispute. Moscow has in the past provided unconditional backing for Abashidze's rule.

"Now we are much more optimistic that Russia's contributions in this peace solution can indeed be very important," Zhvania said. "And the basis for this statement is, really, much warmer relations between our two countries, and a much stronger sense of confidence between us, and the understanding that we share so many interests and so many concerns with Russia that it really brings us to cooperation rather than confrontation."

Under Abashidze's leadership, Adjaria has operated outside the control of the central government.

The Georgian president, who was elected in January, has accused Abashidze of running his region like a feudal lord.

Abashidze, for his part, claims that Saakashvili is trying to impose dictatorship on Adjaria.

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