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    MOSCOW, MARCH 15, 2004 (from RIA Novosti's Arseny Oganesyan) - Machine guns have been mounted on the roofs of Batumi buildings, reports the Georgian TV broadcaster Rustavi 2. Several guns have been spotted on the Meskheti Hotel's rooftop. A special center has reportedly been set up in a road police department to distribute firearms among the public. Special purpose units, 400 men strong, and a few armored personnel carriers are deployed near a bridge across the River Choloki, which marks Adzharia's administrative border with Georgia.

    Georgian Interior Minister Georgy Baramidze assesses the current situation in the autonomy as critical. "Almost the whole of Adzharia is militarized today; all roads from the autonomous republic are blocked; a railroad has also been dismantled in one of the sections," he told the media.

    As if it wasn't enough, Adzharian law-enforcers have mined a highway bridge across the Choloki. Interior Minister of Adzharia Jemal Gogitidze confirmed the news to reporters today.

    Meanwhile, many of the Batumi residents are fleeing the city. They take the highway bridge across the Choloki to get to the Poti area, in Western Georgia, Rustavi 2 reports. "We are going where there's peace and it's quiet. Here is no peace," people preparing to cross into Georgia told the press.

    The nation has found itself on the brink of a civil war, analysts say. The tension between Georgian and Adzharian authorities reached its climax when a group of armed men loyal to Adzharian leader Aslan Abashidze refused to let Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili into the Adzharia-administered territory. Special purpose units of Adzharia's State Security Ministry, reinforced by several hundred Abashidze loyalists, halted Saakashvili's motorcade on the administrative border. Baramidze made an effort to get the problem solved through diplomacy, but the Adzharian side responded with a machine-gun burst, forcing Sakashvili to retreat to Poti.

    It is no secret that the primary objective of Saakashvili's visit to the Adzharian capital, Batumi, was to attend a rally staged by the local Opposition. The Georgian President could have used the occasion to galvanize the Opposition in the runup to parliamentary elections. Saakashvili and his associates are trying to get rid of Abashidze, for, in their view, he does not fit in with the country's new political system. And they are seeking to gain control over Adzharia's economic resources.

    Saakashvili has made it clear he won't let Adzharia act like a sovereign state. He has accused Abashidze of forming a republican army. "Shevardnadze's policies resulted in a local feudal lord in Adzharia setting up an army and a militia that do not report to Georgia's central authorities," the Georgian President was quoted by the Novosti Georgia news agency as saying at a news briefing in Poti. An armed force operating independently of the central government is illegal, the President said. He also said he would not let Georgia be broken up, for the nation "cannot be hostage to individual feudal lords."

    On the other hand, Saakashvili has declared his striving to avoid confrontation and has so far been able to abstain from any tough measures. But with Adzharian troops on top alert, the possibility of a civil war between Tbilisi and Batumi now seems more likely than ever. And it cannot be ruled out that the conflicting sides will draw Russia in.

    As tensions were building up, Abashidze came to Moscow on a visit. He said his mission was to call (through media) the attention of high-level international organizations and world powers to the Georgian developments, which may lead to the country's disintegration. Since the government change in Georgia, Abashidze has been frequenting Moscow to secure the Russian leadership's support. A few days ago, he urged Russian leaders to "take all possible steps to stop the bloodshed." He claimed that Tbilisi was plotting to depose the Adzharian government.

    But what role does the Adzharian leader think Russia could play in the conflict? He suggests that Russian peacekeepers stationed in Georgia should stand up between the civilian population and the invading army to prevent any bloody clashes. In fact, he wants Russia to enter into the hypothetical intrastate conflict between Georgia and its mutinous autonomy, on the latter's side.

    Russia cannot possibly stay away from the conflict, pretending that's none of its business. Especially given the fact that it operates a military base in Adzharia.

    This Sunday, the Foreign Ministry outlined Russia's stance on the Tbilisi-Batumi conflict. "The developments around Adzharia are causing alarm and serious concern. There are grounds to believe that Tbilisi is contemplating the use of [military] force," the ministry's official spokesperson said. "The Georgian authorities should be fully aware that all this may have severe and unpredictable implications, primarily for Georgia itself. In the event of a crisis, the Georgian leadership will have to take all responsibility."

    In the meantime, Saakashvili urged the Russian government to observe neutrality. He holds information suggesting that Russia may provide the Adzharian side with military hardware. The Georgian President also called on the world's leading powers to see to it that not a single Russian tank would leave the Batumi base. But in an interview for the Vremya Novostei newspaper, Colonel Sergei Dubrovin, deputy chief-of-staff of the Russian troops in the Transcaucasia, said that the military personnel at Base 12 were performing their routine duties, and had no intention to interfere with internal Georgian processes by taking their hardware to the streets or in any other way.

    Indeed, despite Russian Foreign Ministry officials' strong words, it is possible to predict with some degree of certainty that Moscow won't help Abashidze if there is any risk involved. There are a number of reasons for that. One reason is that involvement in the Georgian-Adzharian conflict will inevitably aggravate its own relations with the United States. Also, one cannot be absolutely sure that the incumbent president's positions are all that unshakable in Adzharia, where Opposition forces are now consolidating.

    Already, Moscow has taken some steps to avoid its involvement in the conflict. A few days ago, it replaced some of the local personnel at the Batumi base with Russian servicemen, for it feared that those former may break the neutrality and come out on Abashidze's side.

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