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    GEORGIA IMPROVES RELATIONS WITH REBELLIOUS ADZHARIA

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    MOSCOW, March 19, 2004. RIA Novosti commentator Nikolai Zherebtsov. -In line with a decree issued by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, all economic sanctions, introduced against the Adzharian autonomy on March 15, were lifted during the night of March 18-19.

    Railway traffic from Tbilisi to Batumi was fully resumed, the blockade of the Batumi port was lifted and Batumi airport was re-opened, Georgian Interior Minister Georgy Baramidze told RIA Novosti.

    The authorities also lifted road restrictions at the Adzharia's Sarpi checkpoint on the Georgian-Turkish border. Banking operations with the autonomous republic were resumed and all the accounts of Adzharian legal entities frozen by the National Bank of Georgia were released.

    In response, Adzharian leader Aslan Abashidze lifted the curfew and the state of emergency that had been introduced in the autonomy on November 24, 2003.

    Accordingly, relations between Tbilisi and the rebellious autonomy are beginning to stabilise. The predictions made by some analysts about an impending civil war have not come true.

    Admittedly, they had reasons to think so. Indeed, one only has to recall some episodes of Georgia's history in the 1990s.

    When Zviad Gamsakhurdia became president, the country de facto lost South Ossetia, as the former autonomy proclaimed independence. After the next president, Eduard Shevardnadze, came to power, the country lost another autonomy, Abkhazia, which also proclaimed independence after a long armed conflict.

    In January 2004, Mikhail Saakashvili became Georgia's president, and the central authorities' relations with yet another autonomy, Adzharia, deteriorated sharply.

    The starting point for the recent events was an incident on the administrative border with the autonomy, when on March 14 the Georgian president and his escort were refused entry into Adzharia. Batumi decided that there were too many armed bodyguards escorting the head of state.

    Tbilisi viewed this as an example of local authorities' disobedience. The president initiated and the government approved imposing economic sanctions against Adzharia and closing its airspace.

    The republic's authorities responded by shutting off the motorway to Tbilisi and dismantling railways. They also brought additional law enforcement units to the administrative border, including militia troops.

    On March 17, Saakashvili was allowed into Adzharia, but with a smaller escort. His talks with Adzharian leader Aslan Abashidze managed to alleviate some tension.

    Following the negotiations, the president told journalists that the parties had displayed good will. "I personally do not have anything against Mr Abashidze, but the state has interests," he said. "The most important thing is that we have managed to preserve the democratic system and civil peace. The meeting was held in an atmosphere of full mutual understanding," Saakashvili announced.

    "At the meeting, we discussed issues concerning the free movement of people across Adzharia, free and democratic elections, the release of political prisoners, and the disarmament of local militia men," the president pointed out. "We shall solve all the problems that led to the recent misunderstanding between the leadership of Adzharia and the central government of Georgia," he said.

    "There was not and cannot be any conflict between Georgia and Adzharia. Today, I went through Adzharia and was welcomed by the population. They are Georgians, our citizens," Saakashvili emphasised.

    The parties agreed that the president's representative would be sent to the port of Batumi and the Sarpi customs office on the Georgian-Turkish border in order to control cargo movement, he said.

    At the same time, he pointed to the positive role of Russia played in settling the potential conflict.

    Analysts consider the talks and the lifting of the blockade to be a significant success for Saakashvili in consolidating the country, as Abashidze has in fact fulfilled all the conditions of the ultimatum of the central authorities.

    At the same time, the problem has not been completely solved, experts point out. Many of Abashidze's supporters are still demanding that more independence be given to the republic. It should be noted, though, that Abashidze has never adhered to a separatist position and has always emphasised that Adzharia is an inalienable part of Georgia.

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