A Flare-Up on Russia's Flank

Former Soviet states like Georgia still are easy tinderboxes for civil war and USRussia competition. They needn't be if Moscow and Washington keep cool heads.

On Sunday, the Georgian tinderbox sparked when three bridges were blown up in the region of Ajaria on the Black Sea, which is home to a renegade ruler named Aslan Abashidze. The former communist's days in running a feudal fiefdom - one that thrives off a lucrative port trade and is still home to a Russian military base - appear numbered. A desperate Mr. Abashidze ordered the bridges destroyed to prevent a presumed invasion by Georgia's tiny Army.

He's been under increasing pressure to give up his authority ever since a US-educated lawyer named Mikhail Saakashvili became Georgia's leader last November in a "rose revolution" and won big in elections in March.

Mr. Saakashvili is in a hurry to boost the economy in Georgia, which was once the richest Soviet republic, and rid it of the gangs and corruption that have ruined it. But he needs control of Ajaria's port city of Batumi and its lucrative customs revenues.

Georgia held its biggest military maneuvers in history near Ajaria last week, and then Saakashvili gave Abashidze until May 12 to "disband unlawful armed formations and return to the constitutional framework of Georgia" or face removal. That's when the bridges were blown up.

This standoff might have been minor news except that Georgia is on the route of a planned oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea to ships bound for the US.

Russia, meanwhile, may see its historic influence in the region ebb. President Vladimir Putin has so far lent a helpful hand to Georgia's renewed democracy. But he can do more, such as speeding up withdrawal of Russian troops and sending a signal to Abashidze to step aside.

In return, Saakashvili can promise - with Washington's backup - to conduct no armed attacks on Abashidze. With a war next door in Chechnya, nobody needs civil war in Georgia.

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