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Tbilisi Takes Back Adzharia

Adzharian leader Aslan Abashidze resigned early Thursday and flew to Moscow in a power handover that gave victory to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in his battle to rein in the rebellious region but signaled Russia's loss of a key Georgian ally.

With a deadline looming for him to step down, Abashidze met with Russian Security Council chief Igor Ivanov at about 10 p.m. Wednesday. Ivanov had flown in to the Adzharian capital, Batumi, that night.

About three hours later, Saakashvili announced on television that Abashidze had resigned and left the country.

Saakashvili's spokesman, Guga Sukhanishvili, denied that Tbilisi had sent special forces toward Batumi. Sukhanishvili, speaking by telephone from Batumi, also said Georgian television had aired live broadcasts of the situation around Abashidze's residence and no shooting was heard in the footage.

Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zarubishvili said the resolution of the conflict with Adzharia has toppled the last hurdle preventing Georgia from becoming a democratic European country. "Adzharia remained the only undemocratic and corrupt enclave belonging to the past epoch," she said at the start of a visit to Moscow on Thursday.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was satisfied the conflict had been resolved peacefully.

Abashidze's departure has put a big dent on Russia's influence in Georgia, said Konstantin Zatulin, a State Duma deputy and director of the CIS Institute. "He had sought to get closer to Russia. He had taken a pro-Russia position in Georgian politics," he said by telephone.

Zatulin warned that Saakashvili would try to stir up hostility over a Russian base in Adzharia. Russia has two bases in Georgia from Soviet times.

Moscow says it can withdraw from Georgia in about a decade; Tbilisi insists on no more than three years. The countries plan to discuss the issue in June.

In addition to political benefits, Georgia will gain a hefty chunk of cash by reclaiming control of Adzharia. The Batumi port, located on the Black Sea, is by far the biggest enterprise in Georgia, handling 60 percent of all Caspian Sea oil going through Georgia to international markets.

Port officials said Thursday that oil shipments were going smoothly, casting doubt on earlier claims that the port had been mined by Abashidze supporters. Saakashvili waded through a crowd of about 10,000 cheering people to dip his hands in the Black Sea on Thursday.

Saakashvili's victory could lead him to apply similar pressure on two other restive regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The two republics have been autonomous for the past decade.

(The Moscow Times 07.v.04)

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