Georgian Leader to Lift Economic Blockade of Province

The New York Times
March 19, 2004, Friday, Late Edition – Final

Georgian Leader to Lift Economic Blockade of Province


TBILISI, Georgia

President Mikhail Saakashvili said Thursday that he had won important
concessions from the leader of the renegade province of Adzharia and
would lift a four-day-old economic blockade.

“The sanctions will be lifted from midnight tonight because we have
resolved all the issues which led to this misunderstanding between
the local administration and the Georgian government,” he said after
meeting with the leader, Aslan Abashidze, in the provincial capital,

“I want to underline that there is no conflict with Adzharia, and
such a conflict cannot be,” Mr. Saakashvili said.

The deal defuses a crisis that was touched off Sunday when armed men
supporting Mr. Abashidze refused to allow the president to enter

Mr. Saakashvili placed Georgian troops on alert. Mr. Abashidze
declared a state of emergency in his fiefdom and sent armed men into
the streets.

The standoff threatened to have international repercussions as
officials from Russia, which has a military base in Adzharia,
expressed support for Mr. Abashidze.

According to wire service reports from Batumi, Mr. Abashidze will
allow parliamentary elections to proceed on March 28, review the
cases of imprisoned opponents and disarm his paramilitary militias.

Officials from the central government in Tbilisi will be based in
Batumi to ensure that the government receives customs duties that Mr.
Abashidze had withheld in the past, the reports said.

Mr. Abashidze later said, “The meeting showed that there are no
issues that cannot be resolved.”

The specifics of the agreements were not made public, and it was not
clear how much Mr. Abashidze surrendered of the economic and military
control he had exercised for years in the manner of what Mr.
Saakashvili had called “a feudal chief from medieval times.”

Political analysts here said it appeared that the president had
earned at least short-term concessions from Mr. Abashidze that would
allow the election to proceed and supporters of the central
government to campaign.

Mr. Abashidze has harassed and arrested opponents and made it almost
impossible for supporters of the central government to campaign or
move freely.

Mr. Saakashvili has said Mr. Abashidze’s “time is past” and analysts
said it was difficult to see how a compromise could be reached that
would allow him to remain in office. He was one of the last
supporters of the former president, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, who was
driven from office last November in a peaceful uprising led by Mr.

Before traveling to Batumi on Thursday morning, Mr. Saakashvili had
sounded a tough note, saying, “I am not going to be horse-trading
with anyone or meeting anyone halfway. The law should be observed
across all of Georgia’s territory. We are not doing any deals.”

He added, “We are speaking here about my subordinate.”

The meeting in Batumi was accompanied by televised scenes of Mr.
Abashidze’s supporters chanting, “Babu! Babu!”, which means
“grandfather,” and other protesters in the distance chanting Mr.
Saakashvili’s nickname, “Misha! Misha!”

The blockade, which began Monday, was causing economic disruption in
neighboring Turkey and Armenia and particularly in Azerbaijan, where
thousands of rail cars carrying oil to the port at Batumi were

GRAPHIC: Photo: President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia, center,
addressed supporters yesterday at a rally in Batumi, the provincial
capital of Adzharia. (Photo by Agence France-Presse–Getty Images);

Map of Georgia highlighting Batumi: Georgian officials will monitor
customs collections in Batumi.