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    MOSCOW, March 16, 2004 (RIA Novosti observer Nikolai Zherebtsov)

    The problems around Adzharia, a small autonomous republic within Georgia, have set alarm bells ringing around the world. RIA Novosti has learnt in Strasbourg that Secretary General of the Council of Europe Walter Schwimmer has made a statement expressing his anxiety over the growing tension between Tbilisi and Batumi. Mr Schwimmer called on Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and leader of the Adzharian autonomy Aslan Abashidze to conduct real dialogue and avoid exchanging bellicose statements, while he also stressed that as a member of the Council of Europe, Georgia should follow democratic principles.

    Russia's recently re-elected President Vladimir Putin has already discussed the situation around Adzharia with Mikhail Saakashvili over the phone, and urged his Georgian counterpart to solve the current situation peacefully.

    Washington, too, is concerned about the Adzharia situation, and US Secretary of State Colin Powell has already held a telephone conversation with Mikhail Saakashvili.

    After his meeting with the Georgian president in Poti (a Georgian Black Sea port) on Monday, US Ambassador to Georgia Richard Miles told reporters that the present problems between Tbilisi and Batumi needed to be solved urgently.

    After highlighting the complicated nature of the situation, the US diplomat said that his country was to help Mr Saakashvili and Mr Abashidze find a peaceful solution to the problem. Indeed, he added that the crisis was Georgia's internal affair and that the States had no intention of intervening directly in it.

    It is worth mentioning that the United States maintains close co-operation with Georgia on military issues, as US instructors continue to train special forces in Georgia under the Train and Equip programme.

    Moscow has had adopted a particular approach to the situation. It is no secret that Russia quite reasonably views Georgia as a zone of its geopolitical interests and insists on a peaceful solution to all issues related to Adzharia, the Russian Foreign Ministry's official spokesman Alexander Yakovenko has announced.

    According to him, Moscow expects solution to the current situation will be secured through dialogue between Georgia and Adzharia, which will help preserve stability in the country. At the same time, a statement by Yakovenko released on Sunday ran that if a crisis occurred in Tbilisi-Batumi relations, the central Georgian leadership would have to take responsibility for it. In his opinion, Russia has reason to believe that "Tbilisi is planning to resort to force." He believes that such action could lead to the most dramatic and serious consequences, above all for Georgia. "The Georgian leadership has repeatedly announced that it intends to solve the country's problems by democratic means," Mr Yakovenko recalled.

    However, he pointed out that this intention was not always translated into life.

    Moreover, the spokesman, in reference to President Saakashvili's Sunday night ultimatum to Adzharian leader Aslan Abashidze, demanding that he be granted free movement across the autonomy within 24 hours, stressed that ultimatums could lead to the situation "descending into chaos and civil strife."

    President Saakashvili's harsh statement came after he and his armed escort were refused entry into the autonomy on Sunday.

    "An ultimatum is not the way to speak to one's own people in one's country, and in particular to a leader who is not appointed or dismissed by the president," Mr Abashidze told Russian reporters in Batumi on Monday.

    "The president is a person who represents the state, there are more requirements made of him, and he should be an example," the Adzharian leader continued. A family head would hardly walk with a gun in his hand around the house and scare his family members, Mr Abashidze stressed.

    When asked if he were ready to let Mr Saakashvili onto Adzharian territory, Mr Abashidze said, "Yes, if he's alone or accompanied by 2-3 others, but not many, because armed forces are behind them."

    Tbilisi's reaction was immediate: the Georgian leadership decided to set up a special anti-crisis centre to address Adzharian issues. The Georgian leader announced this news on Monday at an emergency session of the Georgian government in Poti (western Georgia) devoted to the situation in the autonomy.

    "Our main task is to protect democracy and human rights, and disarm and neutralise armed people on Adzharian territory. To this end, we are forming an anti-crisis centre headquartered in Poti," the president said, adding that Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania had been appointed head of the centre.

    The Georgian leader said that the centre had been instructed to prevent any unauthorised movements to or from Adzharia. To this end, Georgia's border guards have taken the waters of the Batumi port under special control. "These measures are aimed at preventing weapons or military hardware from being delivered to Adzharia," said Mr Saakashvili.

    Batumi has already been blockaded by three Georgian navy warships.

    The railway and motorway linking Tbilisi and Batumi have also been blocked, while Batumi airport is closed as Georgia has closed Adzharian airspace.

    However, the thing is that Russia's 12th military base is located on Adzharian territory. "Russian military personnel stationed in Georgia are clearly following instructions to maintain neutrality, not intervene in Georgia's internal affairs and to use weapons only if somebody tries to infiltrate the base and seize hardware and weapons," a statement from the Russian embassy in Tbilisi reads. The embassy has also denied Georgian media reports that military equipment had been moved outside the Russian base.

    Considering Moscow's particular role in the region, Russia should become a mediator in the conflict between Tbilisi and Batumi, Chairman of the State Duma international affairs committee Konstantin Kosachev told reporters on Monday. While expressing his conviction that no economic or administrative pressure should be applied, let alone military means, the Russian parliamentarian said that most important point now was for the conflicting sides to avoid threatening or issuing ultimatums to each other.

    Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has agreed to play the role of mediator. He has already arrived at the Adzharian border from Turkey and held negotiations with Mr Abashidze. Mr Luzhkov is currently in Batumi.

    Meanwhile, Valery Arshba, Abkhazia's Vice President (Abkhazia is a self-proclaimed republic within Georgia), told journalists on Monday that the Abkhazian armed forces would be put on alert in view of the situation. "Abkhazia has already experienced everything that is now taking place in Adzharia and knows only too well where Tbilisi's ambitions in state development can lead," he noted referring to the bloodshed that resulted in Abkhazia's de facto secession from Georgia in the early 1990s.

    The latest reports from Adzharia indicate that events could develop into the most undesirable scenario.

    "Adzharia's military and law enforcement structures mined the bridge across the Choloki River on the autonomy's administrative border on March 15," the Georgian TV company, Rustavi-2, has reported. Adzharian Interior Minister Dzhemal Gogitidze has confirmed this, according to the television station, by saying that the move had been taken to prevent Georgia's armed forces from penetrating the autonomy.

    "Mikhail Saakashvili's actions and statements are pushing Adzharia to proclaim independence. This is the president's mistake," said Mr Gogitidze.

    He promised to prevent any destabilisation of the situation in Adzharia. "We are now set on avoiding any conflict situations, but we will respond to force with force, and to goodwill with goodwill," the Adzharian minister said.

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