02:05 GMT +330 May 2017
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    GEORGIA-ADZHARIA: IS A COMPROMISE POSSIBLE?

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    By Vladimir Kozhokin, director of the Institute for Strategic Studies, for RIA Novosti

    If one wants to analyse the present critical situation in Georgia, then it is essential to remember that for Tbilisi the state's territorial integrity is an extremely painful issue, which plays on the mind of any citizen, including, of course, the president. Quite possibly, no other country has a constitution featuring so many articles focusing on territorial integrity. Indeed, even its opening articles are devoted to this matter.

    Article 1, for example, reads, "Georgia is an independent, single and indivisible law-based state, confirmed by the referendum carried out on March 31, 1991 throughout the territory of the country, including the then Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of Abkhazia and the former autonomous region of South Ossetia, and the Act of April 9th, 1991 establishing the independence of Georgia."

    The second article is also devoted to territorial integrity. It says that the territory of the Georgian state is determined as of December 21, 1991. There is a remarkable scrupulousness in the dates, names and facts, because behind every date lies a desire to stress that Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Adzharia are inseparable parts of the single Georgian state.

    Georgia's new president, Mikhail Saakashvili, is following the same path that his predecessor trod. In 1992, Eduard Shevardnadze returned to Tbilisi from Moscow and headed the State Council, and in August Georgian troops moved into Abkhazia. Now we see that Georgian army units are again being concentrated on the border with Adzharia.

    For any Georgian leader, solving the problem of the country's territorial integrity means more than simply strengthening his own power. It also signifies a place in the history books.

    Saakashvili inherited a devastating legacy: a ruined economy and corrupt state machinery. He has to solve all those problems. However, in his efforts to combat corruption, the president will have to enter very dangerous territory. He has begun this battle with a few well-aimed blows, primarily at his predecessor's family, but it will be far harder to go further.

    At the same time, Saakashvili is faced with a political question, i.e. the need to hold elections in a largest possible area of Georgia, which is what he is fighting for today.

    Many experts believe that the attempt to solve the Adzharian issue is only President Saakashvili's first move to establish Tbilisi's complete control over the entire territory of the country. This has also been made plain in the president's comments to the effect that the country could "not be held hostage by individual feudal lords."

    President Saakashvili's decision to start the restoration of the state's integrity with Adzharia is determined by a number of preconditions:

    * The autonomous republic has never left Georgia or declared its intention to do so - it simply wants a special status within the Georgian state;

    * Adzharia took part in Georgia's presidential elections;

    * The Adzharian authorities do not have armed forces comparable with those of Abkhazia;

    * The autonomy has no land border with Russia.

    These are the favourable factors that have prodded the Georgian leader to establish Tbilisi's control over Adzharia in the first place. Should he succeed in doing so, it would be an additional political and military precondition for going on to solving the South Ossetia and Abkhazia issues. So one can confidently assert that the steps taken with regard to Adzharia are the first point in a plan to establish control over all territories mentioned in the Georgian Constitution. It is quite possible that this plan was drawn up with the help of external forces. However, the Georgian head of state has to take all the responsibility for its rapid, radical and, occasionally, over emotional implementation, as he, unfortunately, seeks to solve problems using revolutionary methods rather than long and difficult talks.

    In recent days, tension in relations between Tbilisi and Batumi has reached an unprecedented level, teetering on the brink of armed conflict. And if (God forbid) blood is spilt, the situation will fundamentally change, as until now bloodshed has been restricted to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which was the great difference between these two autonomies and the situation in Adzharia. In Adzharia, there has been no bloodshed, so far, and it is extremely important that this dangerous line is not crossed, as it will be far more difficult to resume the search for a compromise if lives have already been lost.

    Is compromise possible now? It looks like it is. But time is running out and the tighter the knot becomes, the more difficult it will be to undo it. Indeed, although a compromise will benefit Georgia in any case, it may mean losing face for Saakashvili in the near future. It is a real danger for the president, who has to build up the state machinery, minimise corruption and restrain the influence of criminal clans. He may expect success in this undertaking only if he remains a popular politician, as he was yesterday and remains today. If there is bloodshed, the two leaders' search for a compromise will become too difficult and risky, because both of them will be faced with accusations of betraying their sides' interests.

    However, apart form territorial integrity, there is another difficult matter for Georgia that receives less attention. Since it proclaimed independence, Georgia has lost a considerable part of its population, as many people left for other countries, in particular Russia, in search of a better living. Many of them are not going to come back as long as there are no signs of stability or a real economic recovery, because at present people in Georgia simply cannot earn a decent wage.

    Georgia is a small country, and if hostilities break out, the number of people fleeing the country, and not only the western regions close to the potential conflict zone, will greatly increase. It is another challenge to Mikhail Saakashvili. But for the time being, Tbilisi politicians are thinking more about territorial integrity than about the daily concerns of their poverty-stricken people.

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