SAAKASHVILI
Shakh Aivazov  /  AP
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is greeted by local residents waving red-and-white Georgian flags as he triumphantly entered Batumi, Georgia's Adzharia region, shortly after regional leader Aslan Abashidze left for Russia following a tense power struggle.
By Producer
NBC News
updated 5/6/2004 12:43:02 PM ET 2004-05-06T16:43:02

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili celebrated his first successful step toward reunifying his country Thursday after he forced rebel leader Aslan Abashidze to step down and flee the autonomous republic of Adzhara, ending a tense standoff between the two men that had threatened to boil over into civil war.

The peaceful resolution of the conflict between the Western-oriented Saakashvili and the old-style, entrenched Communist leader Abashidze suggested a brighter future for Georgia, especially since the new president has garnered strong support domestically as well as from the United States and Russia.

Bringing Adzhara back under central control was Saakashvili's first test as a new president, and he passed it with flying colors, according to Alexei Malashenko, an expert on the Caucasus region at the Moscow Carnegie Center.

"His first step as president was made brilliantly. The solution of the situation in Adzhara proves that Saakashvili will be able to do more in Georgia. It is proves that he is popular not just in Tbilisi but all over the country."

Support for Saakashvili had swelled over the past two days of demonstrations in the Adzharian capital of Batumi.

A crowd of thousands cheered when Saakasvhili addressed them Thursday, saying, "You are heroic people. Thank you for everything you've done."

Later he commented to Georgian TV from inside Abashidze's old residence, "The process of restoration of the country's unity has begun."

History of division
Georgia has suffered several bloody civil wars since becoming an independent country after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Adzhara never declared full independence from Georgia, and there is no history of bloodshed with the region as there is with the autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both in an unstable state of cease-fire and de facto independence. 

However since 1991, Abashidze, an old-style communist, ran Adzhara like his own personal fiefdom and refused to pay taxes to the central government, using the lucrative proceeds from Georgia's largest port in Batumi to maintain his control.

Much of the population of the area lives in poverty. Abashidze's hold on power was further complicated by the fact that he is the head of a clan that has been among the region's ruling elite since the 14th century.

Despite this, the few hundred pro-Abashidze supporters were vastly outnumbered by thousands of demonstrators on Thursday chanting Saakasvhili's nickname, "Misha, Misha," and waving red roses — a direct reference to Georgia's first "Rose Revolution," when then-President Eduard Shevardnadze, much like Abashidze, was forced to resign after massive protests.

Improving ties with Russia
Under Shevardnadze, Georgia's relations with Russia were often antagonistic, as the small country tried to shake off its dependence on its old ruler.

Many in Russia have been suspicious of Georgia's warming ties with the United States.

Georgia has become a strategic partner in the war on terror, sending more than a hundred troops to Iraq and promising more. The United States has been training the Georgian military for several years and has provided military equipment to modernize its army.

The United States has also thrown its support behind a major oil pipeline, now under construction, that will carry oil from Central Asia to the Black Sea ports, bypassing Russia. Saakashvili, a U.S.-educated lawyer, has created an even more Western-oriented government and enjoys strong American support.

Moscow, on the other hand, has regarded Saakashvili with suspicion and maintained its long-standing support of Adzhara's Abashidze. Nationalist circles in Russia complained that Washington had given Saakashvili carte blanche to rein in Adzhara, and that a victory for Saakasvhili would be a victory for the United States.

But while Saakasvhili’s government is decidedly pro-American, he has tried to take into account Russia's interests, and this approach has won him the favor of President Vladimir Putin.

Putin's respect for Saakashvili virtually pre-ordained the outcome of the struggle to return Adzhara to Georgia.

"I'm sure this situation was discussed ahead of time in Moscow and Tbilisi," Malashenko said, explaining that the immediate dispatch of Russian Security Council head Igor Ivanov to Batumi to negotiate Abashidze's resignation was proof.

"Russia had the choice between Abashidze and Saakashvili, and I think Russia made the right choice. It's more productive to deal with a president than with a separatist leader," Malashenko explained.

Such cooperation between Georgia and Russia could bode well for Georgia's future, and could make reunification with the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia a possibility.

"I don't want to make predictions," said Malashenko, "but it's a step toward starting to discuss the problem of Abkhazia. It proves Russia and Georgia can indeed work together, and maybe can find a solution, although the road to a solution in Abkhazia is much longer."

Judy Augsburger is an NBC News producer based in Moscow.  

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