Georgia's popular leader Mikhail Saakashvili has launched a high-stakes showdown to reunite his deeply fractured country, starting with an ultimatum to force the wayward region of Ajaria to accept central government control.
If Mr. Saakashvili fails in his bid to compel Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze to disarm all illegal militias by May 12, Georgia - a close US ally in the war on terror - could be plunged into its second post-Soviet cycle of ruinous civil wars.
"This is a big gamble for Saakashvili," says Gennady Chuffrin, deputy director of the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. Of Georgia's clutch of independence-minded regions, Ajaria seems the most susceptible to central government pressure, he says, and therefore it's being targeted first. But, "the situation can easily run out of control. Saakashvili has limited time to deliver the goods, and a very long way to go."
In a televised address Sunday, Saakashvili said that Mr. Abashidze "has to restore normal legal activities in the region and begin disarming." Otherwise, "the president of Georgia will have to use his constitutional right to dissolve the local state bodies and hold new elections on Ajaria's territory."
Abashidze responded by placing his rag-tag local militia forces on alert, blowing up three rail and road bridges that connect Ajaria to the rest of Georgia, and warning that the use of military force against him could lead to "great bloodshed."
Russia, which maintains a Soviet-era military base in the Ajarian capital Batumi, has long sympathized with Abashidze, an unelected leader who has run the Black Sea region of 300,000 for more than a decade, usually with little more than a nod to Georgian authorities in Tbilisi.
Experts say neither Russia nor the United States, which has warm relations with the US-educated Saakashvili, would like to see the situation erupt into all-out warfare. Russia's foreign ministry warned of "catastrophic consequences" if the standoff leads to shooting, while US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher urged Saakashvili to stick to "political and economic tools" in his efforts to bring Abashidze to heel.
"The violent development of this situation is in no one's interests," says Mr. Chuffrin. "Russian forces in Ajaria are observing strict neutrality. I don't believe Moscow would intervene, even covertly, in this problem."
Past Russian meddling
In the early 1990s Russian troops and special services backed separatist movements in Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgian forces were badly mauled in both conflicts, and then-president Eduard Shevardnadze fled the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi in 1993 just hours ahead of its capture by rebel troops.
Over the past two years an elite brigade of Georgian troops has received anti-terrorist training, helicopters, and some equipment from the US. Georgia contributes over 100 soldiers to coalition forces in Iraq, and has recently offered to increase the number to more than 500.
Saakashvili has accused a former Russian general, Yury Netkachov, of training Ajarian fighters and supervising the demolition of bridges and railway lines into the tiny republic.
The Russian military base in Batumi has about 3,000 personnel and is one of the area's largest employers - many of the "troops" are widely said to be local people; only the officers are Russian. Most other economic activity centers around exports of Caspian oil through Batumi's port, Georgia's second largest, and consumer trade with neighboring Turkey.
The dispute between Tbilisi and Ajaria has simmered for years, but grew critical after Saakashvili led last November's "Rose Revolution" to peacefully unseat Mr. Shevardnadze, who was accused of corruption, incompetence, and rigging parliamentary elections. Abashidze, an occasional political ally of Shevardnadze, claimed that the power change was illegal. He attempted to keep Ajarians from voting in the January presidential polls that brought Saakashvili to power with over 90 percent support. He later tried to close Ajaria during March parliamentary elections, called to replace the flawed November ones.
In both cases the disputes were resolved at the last moment through the personal intervention of Georgian leaders, US Ambassador Richard Miles, and Russian emissaries such as Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov.
In March, Saakashvili visited Batumi - after first being barred by Ajarian militia - and struck a power-sharing deal with Abashidze. Tbilisi has since accused Abashidze of reneging on that agreement.
Hundreds of local people came out to cheer Saakashvili as he drove through the tiny region last March, leading to widespread hopes that a peaceful reconciliation of mainly Muslim Ajaria with the Christian Georgian majority might be achieved. Saakashvili has also been bolstered by the recent defection of former Abashidze allies such as Ajarian tycoon Aleksandr Davitadze and police colonel Anzor Dumbadze to Tbilisi. And there have been protest rallies in Ajaria, including one broken up by police Tuesday, in support of the central government. Despite these signs of dissent, the depth of local support for Abashidze, whose ancestors have ruled the region for centuries, remains difficult to gauge.