Prague, 6 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Aslan Abashidze, the defiant leader of Georgia's autonomous province of Adjaria, was forced to relinquish power overnight and flee into exile as throngs of people celebrated in the streets of the regional capital Batumi.
Some had feared the tense standoff between Abashidze -- who had refused to submit to central authority -- and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili would escalate into a civil war. Instead, it was resolved peacefully.
Facing a popular uprising in the streets of Batumi and the defection of key political allies in his cabinet as well as the security forces, Abashidze told his supporters overnight that it was time to call it quits. This was his last public message: "I ask you to simply disperse and return to your homes, to your homes. Two hundred cars are on their way, filled with soldiers, and we don't know how this is all going to end. So thank you for everything, but please return to your homes."
If Russia were to drop its support, as it did in the case of the once-favored Aslan Abashidze, many in Tbilisi believe the Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts could be resolved and Georgia made whole again.
Igor Ivanov, the head of the Russian Security Council, flew to Batumi last night in an effort to end the crisis. ITAR-TASS reported that Ivanov took Abashidze with him aboard his plane, along with Abashidze's son and several close associates, on his return trip to Moscow. An official at the Adjar mission in Moscow told Reuters he did not know how long Abashidze would remain there. Abashidze has close ties to Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov and other Russian politicians, making the Russian capital a logical exile home.
A jubilant President Mikheil Saakashvili announced the end of Abashidze's rule on Georgian television from Tbilisi. "Georgians: Aslan has fled! Ajara is free! I congratulate everyone on this victory," he said. "Georgia has to be united and rise up. Georgia will be united."
Saakashvili, accompanied by other senior officials, then flew to Batumi in the early morning hours to savor his victory.
Many Georgian officials have noted the special symbolism of today's events, which falls on St. George's Day, which commemorates the patron saint of the Georgian nation. St. George's Day, by tradition, is celebrated on two dates in Georgia -- 23 November and 6 May. On 23 November, the so-called Rose Revolutio brought the end of President Eduard Shevardnadze's administration. And today, 6 May, brought the downfall of Aslan Abashidze.
Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania spoke about this coincidence this morning after arriving in Batumi. "This day, this early morning on St. George's Day, will certainly go down in the centuries-long history of Georgia as an absolutely special day. It is very hard not to call attention to the striking symbolism. On 23 November, on St. George's Day, Georgia's capital was liberated when Eduard Shevardnadze left the political scene. And today, early on the morning of 6 May, also on St. George's Day, Aslan Abashidze has left," he said.
The patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilya II, was even more explicit in a message from Tbilisi. Referring to Georgia's other two rebellious provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, he urged their reunification. "I congratulate you on St. George's Day! And now, on to Abkhazia and Tskhinvali [regional capital of South Ossetia!" he said.
Despite the patriarch's controversial appeal, Prime Minister Zhvania this morning stressed that Adjaria will retain its autonomous status. He said new elections to the region's parliament would be organized soon.
Analysts are now looking to talks in Moscow between Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, which are due to take place later today, as an important gauge of how future events could unfold.
Russia played a key role in the peaceful resolution of the crisis in Adjaria, with Igor Ivanov acting as the peacemaker in Batumi much as he did last November, when he flew to Tbilisi to help smooth the transition of power from Eduard Shevardnadze to Mikheil Saakashvili.
Archil Gegeshidze, senior fellow at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, told RFE/RL by telephone from Tbilisi today that despite improving relations, Georgia and Russia must still resolve many thorny issues. He highlighted the role Russia could play in helping to settle the decade-long conflicts with Georgia's secessionist Abkhaz and South Ossetia regions.
"We have several important issues we need to discuss with Russia. Among them are the withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgian territory, reaching agreement on a date for the withdrawal of these bases from Georgian territory, one of which is in Ajara. A second important issue regards Russia's constructive participation in the process of resolving the remaining conflicts on Georgia's territory, namely Abkhazia and the former South Ossetia," Gegeshidze said.
The authorities in Tbilisi, which have not exercised territorial control over the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia for over a decade, have long blamed Moscow for encouraging the separatists. If Russia were to drop its support, as it did in the case of the once-favored Aslan Abashidze, many in Tbilisi believe the Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts could be resolved and Georgia made whole again, as Gegeshidze explained.
"Russia has special relations with Abkhazia, with the local leadership. Russia has its interests in Abkhazia and Russia retains many levers to influence the two sides in the conflict, especially the Abkhaz side, so that they agree to sit around the negotiation table and discuss the future status of Abkhazia within Georgia. Russia has many psychological and political levers to positively influence the Abkhaz side," he said.
That may be so, but unlike in Adjaria, the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are complicated by ethnic factors and bitter memories from the bloody wars fought on both territories a decade ago between the central authorities in Tbilisi and secessionist forces, making a resolution far more complicated.
(David Kakabadze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report.)