- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2004

The tense standoff between Georgia and one of its breakaway regions could put the United States in a tricky position. Surely, Washington wants to support the pro-American Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili in his efforts to reinforce the territorial integrity of his country. But an armed clash between central authority in Tbilisi and the rebellious region of Adjara could spread, possibly engulfing areas with strong Islamic sentiments. Instability would threaten an oil pipeline project that seeks to connect the Caspian basin with the Turkish Mediterranean. Also, Washington doesn’t want to get caught between Tbilisi and Moscow on the dispute.

Yesterday, Mr. Saakashvili ordered an economic blockade around Adjara, after armed supporters of the region’s leader, Aslan Abashidze, prevented him from entering. The Georgian president has vowed to bring the region under Tbilisi’s control by the March 28 parliamentary elections.

So far, the United States has wisely struck a supportive but neutral position, offering to help mediate the crisis. Washington should bolster its private dialogue with Mr. Saakashvili and propose that Moscow be given a mediating role. Formally involving Russian officials could minimize the shadowy role they are likely to take in the conflict.

Adjara, which is on the Black Sea coast and benefits from trade and custom’s revenue, provides higher living standards than most of Georgia. Mr. Abashidze has been a popular leader in the area for more than a decade, due in part to the de facto independence he has been able to secure from Tbilisi. His democratic credentials are ambiguous, but Mr. Abashidze has not declared outright independence for Adjara in the way other rebellious leaders in Georgia have. If Mr. Saakashvili wants to negotiate a consolidation of Georgia, then Mr. Abashidze is the leader to start talks with.

What Mr. Saakashvili could offer Mr. Abashidze is formal independence, since the Georgian constitution is vague on self-rule for these regions. Mr. Saakashvili also could offer Mr. Abashidze the prospect of becoming both a regional and national political figure, by campaigning for parliament.

The question remains, though, does Mr. Saakashvili want to negotiate. The young and charismatic leader may believe that he can spark a revolution in Adjara like the kind that won him power in Tbilisi, noted Nikolas Gvosdev, a senior fellow with the Nixon Center. But this is unlikely, since Mr. Saakashvili is widely seen in Adjara as coercively enforcing Tbilisi’s will.

U.S. officials should ensure that they are speaking in unison on policy toward Georgia, and that Mr. Saakashvili hasn’t misconstrued America’s statements of support for military backing. Armed volatility in the Caucuses is the last thing Washington, Moscow and Tbilisi need right now.

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