Georgia Pledges to Crack Down on Rebellious Province

By Sergei Blagov | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Moscow ( - The political crisis in the former Soviet republic of Georgia shows no sign of abating, and it may deepen with the launch Friday of Georgian military maneuvers near the border with a separatist-minded autonomous province.

Georgia's U.S.-backed President Mikhail Saakashvili has pledges to destroy separatist forces in the Black Sea province of Adzharia, but the region's leader, Aslan Abashidze, is vowing to resist the central government in Tbilisi.

Although Abashidze is regarded as an ally of Russia, which maintains a military base in Adzharia, Moscow has for the meantime remained silent on the deepening crisis.

Charged that Georgia was intending to invade, Adzharia at the weekend declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew. It has since begun mobilizing reserves, setting up roadblocks at its border with the rest of Georgia.

Abashidze claimed that the Georgian government was plotting to assassinate him, and told Russian television that only two countries could prevent hostilities from breaking out - Russia and the U.S.

Georgia did nothing without coordinating first with Washington, he told the NTV network.

Saakashvili has questioned Abashidze's sanity and warned that separatists would be "destroyed by the Georgian army and the Georgian state." But he has also denied intending to use force against the province of some 400,000 people.

Nonetheless, his Interior Minister, Georgy Baramidze, hinted Wednesday that a police operation in the province remained possible, and massive military maneuvers near the border are slated to begin on Friday.

As the standoff continues, Abashidze's problems have been compounded by defections to the Georgian side.

Earlier this month, the commander of a Georgian military unit based in the province sided with Abashidze, but most of his officers refused to obey orders and returned to Georgia-proper.

Since then, the crew of a Black Sea naval patrol vessel and several members of Abashidze's bodyguard unit have also defected to Tbilisi.

If it comes to a conflict, the province is heavily outnumbered.

Georgia's small army boasts some 18,000 men and 120 tanks and armored vehicles, but the police force is 76,000-strong. By comparison, Adzharian forces comprise 2,000 policemen and paramilitary units of around 8,000 men.

Adzharian officials have claimed, however, that about one-third of the region's male population is armed and able to defend their homes.

The latest crisis began last month, when Saakashvili was denied access to the province. In response he declared an air, land and sea blockade on Adzharia, put the armed forces on alert and gave Abashidze 24 hours to submit to central government authority.

Instead, Abashidze dispatched hundreds of armed supporters to the border.

Saakashvili subsequently lifted the blockade after he received assurances from Abashidze that free campaigning would be allowed in the province during the country's March 28 parliamentary election. Tensions have continued to simmer, however.

During the March episode, Abashidze actively sought Moscow' backing, spending considerable time in the Russian capital and urging the Kremlin to intervene.

At the time, Moscow backed Adzharia and warned Georgia not to resort to "provocations, ultimatums and use of military force."

This time, Russia has not yet got involved. A Defense Ministry spokesman did say that Russia's military base in the province was not affected by the crisis, and Russian forces would not interfere.

Tbilisi, backed by the U.S., has been urging Russia to withdraw its last two military bases from Georgian soil, within three years, although Russian officials have indicated the process could take longer than that.

On a fence-mending visit to Moscow last February, Saakashvili assured Russia that its bases in Georgia would not be replaced by U.S. military bases.

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