Georgia Strengthens Grip on Ajaria

BATUMI (AP)–The legislature in Georgia’s Ajaria province has abolished the post held by the former leader of the region–strengthening the central government’s control–officials said Friday.

The unanimous decision late Thursday came after Aslan Abashidze bowed to pressure to step down and flew to Moscow–ending a struggle with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili for control over Ajaria that sparked fears of a new war in Georgia.

Abashidze–who led Ajaria for 13 years–had been the speaker of its parliament but later became its executive leader–a post created for him by the legislature in the Black Sea region.

"There was a regime here that had far more rights than an autonomous region should have," Saakashvili said late Thursday–referring to Ajaria’s autonomous status within Georgia. "Ajaria was separate from Georgia. It had … its own armed forces–its own police structure. But those times are over."

After Abashidze left following two days of public protests–Saakashvili flew triumphantly to the Ajarian capital of Batumi and called it a step toward restoring Georgia’s unity.

"While I am the president of Georgia–I will not allow the existence of several armed forces and ministries of security and internal affairs on the country’s territory," he said.

The comment was more provocative than a statement he had made earlier in the day–when he pledged to try to bring the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia back into the fold through negotiations. The two regions broke away from central government control in wars in the early 1990s.

Saakashvili has moved quickly to assert authority over Ajaria and pledged that legislative elections would be held around mid-June. He said he would remain in Batumi for five days–helping to set up and lead a temporary Council to govern the region until the elections. He said a Batumi native–high-level Georgian railroad official Levan Vashalomidze–would lead the council.

Despite the efforts to maintain order–fights broke out outside Abashidze’s former residence Friday when former guards of the regional strongman came to demand two months’ salary and they were confronted by anti-Abashidze protesters. Georgian Interior Ministry troops fired into the air to break up the scuffles–and Deputy Security Minister Gigi Ugulava said authorities would pay "those who deserve it."

Saakashvili has made restoring Georgia’s unity a major goal since his landslide election in January–which came after he led protests that prompted the resignation of his predecessor–Eduard Shevardnadze–in November.

Unlike Abkhazia and South Ossetia–Ajaria did not espouse separatism. But Abashidze had defied the central government for years–withholding revenues from Tbilisi’s coffers and firmly suppressing opposition political groups. Ajaria had its own heavily armed Interior Ministry forces and Kalashnikov-toting men in civilian dress prowled Batumi’s streets.

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