TBILISI (Reuters)–The head of Georgia’s rebel Ajaria region on Tuesday defied central government threats to depose him and promised to tighten his hold on the territory as his followers crushed an opposition demonstration.
Aslan Abashidze has declared a state of emergency and curfew in the Black Sea region of Ajaria–which includes the important oil shipping port of Batumi. Tbilisi has given him until May 12 to recognize its authority.
Armed men broke up a demonstration in support of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili in central Batumi on Tuesday–opposition politicians said. To prevent students gathering–Abashidze has closed all schools and universities for two weeks.
Saakashvili has promised not to use force to crush the region’s autonomy but militiamen blasted bridges linking Ajaria to the Georgian heartland on Sunday–saying they feared invasion from troops stationed nearby.
"The humane approach that the autonomous republic’s leadership has followed has not brought results," Abashidze told local television.
"Any criminal acts–actions or slogans will be treated with the utmost severity…No one will be forgiven for attempts to create a hotbed of disorder."
Saakashvili came to power in a bloodless revolution in November–promising to end corruption and sweep away figures such as Abashidze who have held office since Soviet times.
But Abashidze has not backed down. He has refused to disarm his militias as demanded by Saakashvili and kept a firm grip on the opposition.
"A group of people armed with metal poles fiercely beat the demonstrators. Before this–fire engines with water cannons were used," opposition politician Tamaz Diasamidze told Reuters. He said there had been 200 demonstrators.
Abashidze told local television that the universities and schools had to be closed for a fortnight to prevent "tension."
"We had to take preventative measures. No one can calmly watch as preparations are made for tension. They have to be cut off at the roots," he said.
Washington is watching the stand-off with concern–fearing for stability in a country that will be part of the route for a major pipeline taking oil from the Caspian Sea to a Turkish port.
It has called on Abashidze to disarm local militias. Two Georgian regions are currently completely outside central government control–having gained de facto independence in bloody wars in the 1990s.
US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on Monday that the US stayed in constant touch with Russia on Georgia’s defiant autonomous region of Ajaria–trying to prevent a military confrontation in Georgia.
He stressed that the US supported the Georgian government in its bid to restore constitutional order in Ajaria.
"We welcome President Mikhail Saakashvili’s announcement that he would not use force and we continue to encourage the government of Georgia to use political and economic tools in its efforts to restore the rule of law in Ajaria," Boucher said.
Moscow has also called for calm–fearing that the crisis could descend into bloodshed. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said–"We regard relations between Batumi and Tbilisi as an internal affair of Georgia–but we think that attempts to resolve the problem with militant statemen’s and threats to use force are absolutely impermissible."Tbilisi should realize that the use of force will inevitably have in the gravest consequences–primarily for Georgia itself," he remarked.
Saakashvili appealed to Moscow on Monday to help rein in former Russian servicemen he said had blown up bridges around the restive region of Ajaria.
But Saakashvili–clearly wary of stoking tensions with Georgia’s mighty neighbor–told CNN television he did not think Moscow had ordered the action. He said he sought a peaceful end to his dispute with Ajaria–the site of an important oil terminal.
He said the action had been conducted by militia led by retired Russian officer–Major-General Yuri Netkachov.
"But I am certainly addressing the Russian government today to help us–to spare us and get rid of some people who fly in and blow up bridges and stir up trouble," he told CNN.
Tbilisi has frequently accused Netkachov–once a top commander in the Transcaucasus region–of raising rebellion.
Tensions in Georgia–which faces rebellion in several regions–are fraught with implications for the West as well as the former Soviet Union. The country is a transit territory for a planned pipeline to bring Caspian oil to the Mediterranean.
Russia’s two military bases–remnants of past Soviet power–are a source of tension between Georgia and Russia. Russia is also viewed warily by Tbilisi for its tacit support for rebel administrations in the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.