Restive province warns of attack by Georgia as leaders' feud worsens

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A blockade of oil supplies to the Black Sea port of Batumi formed the latest salvo yesterday in an increasingly bitter stand-off between the government of Georgia and its restive province of Adzharia.

A blockade of oil supplies to the Black Sea port of Batumi formed the latest salvo yesterday in an increasingly bitter stand-off between the government of Georgia and its restive province of Adzharia.

The closure of the 200,000-barrels per day terminal, which at stroke cuts off the regional Adzharian government's biggest source of foreign currency, was ordered by Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian President, to bring the province to heel before elections on 28 March.

Both sides said the other was preparing to use force to resolve the long dispute over Adzharia's payments to Georgia's coffers. Matters were brought to a head on Sunday when Adzharian forces turned back Mr Saakashvili at gunpoint as he tried to enter the region - in response he frozebank accounts of senior figures in the province and cut rail and road routes.

The crisis was not unexpected. Two weeks ago Aslan Abashidze, the maverick governor of the semi-tropical Autonomous Republic of Adzharia, squeezed between the mountains and the Black Sea, told The Independent he had grave news. Sitting in his palatial office in Batumi he said: "The order has been given by Tbilisi [the Georgian capital] to load a train with 36 tanks and 500 soldiers ... We will defend ourselves, we will defend Adzharia."

Known in Adzharia as "Babu" or Grandfather, Mr Abashidze is engaged in a political feud with Mr Saakashvili, an American-trained lawyer who led November's "Revolution of the Roses" to depose Eduard Shevardnadze, once Soviet Foreign Minister. In the wake of the revolution the ruler of Adzharia is determined to maintain his grip on power and preserve his fiefdom's relative prosperity from what he sees as the expansionist ambitions of Tbilisi.

A group of news organisations, including The Independent, were called to Mr Abashidze's high-security compound to be played a tape recording. The tape was allegedly of a phone conversation between an Adzharian official and a Georgian army commander discussing a troop train being assembled at a base near Tbilisi, 300 miles from Adzharia.

The army officer, who claimed nine T-72 and T-55 tanks were being loaded along with 14 light tanks and 13 armoured personnel carriers, said his troops were uneasy at being asked to invade Adzharia. "I know my guys and I think they are not willing to do it," he said.

Mr Abashidze insisted the threat was real. "Everything has been pre-planned and pre-decided [by Tbilisi]. We will take every measure in order to defend the Autonomous Republic of Adzharia. Unfortunately there will be casualties."

In recent weeks the danger of Georgia suffering a third civil war in a decade has come closer. Last week when asked where the invading forces were, Mr Abashidze simply said: "They [the government] are looking for more reasons and a suitable time [to invade]."

Adzharian officials said that there were "brotherhoods" of between 1,000 and 1,500 armed men in each district ready to resist any incursion. A curfew has been imposed.

Mr Abashidze, a high-ranking technocrat during the Soviet era whose autocratic rule has preserved Adzharia's status as the wealthiest province of Georgia, denies he has secessionist ambitions.

But as Yuri Luzhkov, the Mayor of Moscow and an ally of the governor, flew in to show his support, Mr Saakashvili made plain his idea of a resolution: "No one likes to lose power, especially those from the old Soviet nomenclature who have been around for too long."

Comments