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Georgia: Political Standoff Acquires Regional Dimension

The leader of Georgia's autonomous republic of Adjaria, Aslan Abashidze, yesterday made a surprise visit to Armenia to discuss with President Robert Kocharian the political crisis that began in Tbilisi after a disputed parliamentary election. Abashidze today held talks with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Yerevan and Baku have both expressed concerns at recent political developments in Georgia, which is home to large ethnic Armenian and Azerbaijani communities.

Prague, 12 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Georgia's political crisis over the disputed 2 November parliamentary polls is threatening to extend beyond the country's borders and acquire a regional dimension.

Hundreds of opposition activists have been demonstrating in Tbilisi and other Georgian cities since the election to demand that President Eduard Shevardnadze order a vote recount or step down.

Partial returns released by the Central Election Commission show Shevardnadze's For a New Georgia finished first with more than 20 percent of the votes. But leaders of the opposition National Movement-Democratic Front (NM-DF) of Tbilisi City Council chairman Mikhail Saakashvili claim victory and have vowed to stage daily protest rallies until the Georgian leader "admits defeat."

Shevardnadze held talks with his opponents to defuse the crisis, but to no avail. The veteran leader recently accused opposition leaders of trying to engineer a coup to oust him from power before his mandate expires in 2005.

Armenia and Azerbaijan yesterday expressed concerns at domestic developments in Georgia, following similar comments made earlier by the United States and Russia.

Shevardnadze yesterday held telephone conversations with his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts, Robert Kocharian and Ilham Aliyev, to discuss the crisis. Who initiated these calls remains unclear. The Georgian opposition believes Shevardnadze instigated the dialogue.

Addressing supporters yesterday, Saakashvili said the president was "desperate for help" and had decided to turn to Armenia and Azerbaijan for support.

The opposition leader also denounced a surprise visit that Aslan Abashidze, the leader of Georgia's autonomous republic of Adjaria, made to the Armenian capital earlier that day as part of what he called Shevardnadze's "plot" to retain power by force:

"Aslan Abashidze's visit to [Yerevan] is a plot against the whole of Georgia. My impression is that the Georgian leadership is plotting against the state because it no longer enjoys support among the population. I hope Armenian leaders will not agree to Abashidze's adventurist proposals, and I am sure they will not because it would not be in Armenia's interests."

Abashidze's Democratic Revival Union party came second in the disputed election with nearly 19 percent of the vote, ahead of Saakashvili's NM-DF. While officially in the opposition, Abashidze fully supports Shevardnadze in the current standoff.

Saakashvili yesterday alleged that the Georgian president is considering using the country's predominantly ethnic Armenian region of Samtskhe-Javakheti as a tool to retain power and had dispatched Abashidze to Yerevan to secure Armenia's neutrality.

"According to information collected by Armenian and Georgian journalists, [Abashidze] said [during talks with Kocharian] that Samtskhe-Javakheti's Armenians would seek autonomy and demand that Shevardnadze remains in power," Saakashvili said.

Another opposition leader, former Parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania, yesterday claimed Shevardnadze and Abashidze had reached an agreement under which the former would appoint the latter head of the legislature, with a view to handing him his duties at a later stage. In Zhvania's view, Abashidze's purpose in going to Armenia and Azerbaijan was to sound out the leaderships of those countries.

Shevardnadze's office today branded allegations made by opposition leaders as a "conspiracy theory" aimed at spreading confusion and discord among Georgia's multiethnic population.

Presidential spokesman Kakha Imnadze said Abashidze's visit to Yerevan had been planned a long time ago and had nothing to do with the current political standoff. Armenian media, however, report Abashidze and Kocharian discussed the Georgian crisis at length.

A brief statement issued by the Armenian presidency at the end of the meeting said Kocharian expressed hope that the situation in Georgia would stabilize as soon as possible. "Political stability is necessary not only for Georgia, but also for Armenia and the entire region," Kocharian's office added without further details.

Bordering Armenia and Turkey, the restive Samtskhe-Javakheti province is home to Georgia's largest Armenian community. The region harbors one of Georgia's two remaining Russian military bases, in Akhalkalaki, and is viewed in Tbilisi as a potential hot spot.

Partial results returns, however, show that pro-government candidates made a strong showing in the legislative polls. Official figures indicate For a New Georgia grabbed 54 percent of the votes in Akhalkalaki and more than 80 percent in the neighboring town of Ninotsminda.

But Saakashvili and his allies claim election fraud in the region was massive -- a claim supported by local Armenian autonomists.

Opposition leaders believe vote-rigging was even more widespread and systematic in Georgia's southern Kvemo-Kartli region, an area with a large ethnic Azerbaijani minority. A Tbilisi court yesterday ordered a vote recount in Kvemo-Kartli's Bolnisi district after antigovernment candidates complained of overall falsification.

Addressing reporters on 10 November, Mubariz Karayev, the chairman of Center for the Development of Georgia's Azerbaijani Communities, denied suggestions that ethnic Azerbaijanis might be a tool in the hands of the government.

"Every Azerbaijani wants to oppose offending claims made by some political organizations which in particular say that residents in [Kvemo-Kartli's city of] Marneuli are illiterate and that the ballots there were counted by the head of Azerbaijan's Central Election Commission," Karayev said. "This was not the case, and this could not have been the case. Such claims are simply ridicule, and we want to express our discontent with this respect."

Georgia's Turkic minority traditionally supports Shevardnadze, but the opposition has secured the support of some ethnic Azerbaijani community leaders.

An Azerbaijani official delegation visited Kvemo-Kartli last month (6 October) to urge residents to cast their ballots for pro-government candidates. That same day, Shevardnadze officially lent his support to outgoing leader Heidar Aliyev's son, Ilham, in the Azerbaijani presidential election on 15 October.

Tbilisi and Baku have close economic ties and are linked by strategic pipeline projects designed to ship Azerbaijani crude oil and natural gas to Turkey through Georgia.

A statement released yesterday by the Azerbaijani presidency quoted Ilham Aliyev as saying he considers stability in Georgia a priority and expressing hope Shevardnadze will find a "constructive solution" to the current political crisis. The Azerbaijani president also expressed support for his Georgian counterpart, saying he approves of his handling of the crisis.

Aliyev today met with visiting Abashidze in Baku.

Officially, the Adjar leader went to Azerbaijan to congratulate Aliyev on his recent election. Yet, commentators believe the main purpose of his visit is to discuss the situation in Georgia.

No details of the talks were immediately available.