Sunday, May 9, 2004

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili leveraged his widespread support to rid his country of a long-standing problem. Aslan Abashidze held undemocratic sway over the region of Adzharia for more than a decade and appeared to be fossilized into the political scene. Mr. Abashidze fled Adzharia on Thursday — without a shot being fired by Georgian forces.

The United States welcomes this development. It is backing a pipeline that will transport oil from the Caspian Basin to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and off to international markets. This project is central to President Bush’s efforts to diversify global sources of energy. The departure of Mr. Abashidze, who had resisted central authority from Tbilisi, helps to secure Georgia and therefore the project. It could also help prevent unrest from spreading to Georgia’s potentially volatile neighbors, such as Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The other prominent protagonist in the Abashidze drama has been Russia. Russia has two military bases in Adzharia, which the Georgian government wants removed faster than the Kremlin would prefer. The Georgian government claims a retired Russian general was running Mr. Abashidze’s renegade militia. That man, Lt. Gen. Yury Netkachyov, appears to have been acting as an independent mercenary, but the association surely was embarrassing to the Kremlin. In the end, Russia played an important role in helping the Georgian government overcome its Abashidze problem.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mr. Saakashvili spoke over the telephone about two to three times in the days preceding Mr. Abashidze’s flight, said Georgia’s ambassador in Washington, Levan Mikeladze. The day of his departure, Russian security chief Igor Ivanov dropped in on Mr. Abashidze, and the pair left for Russia. By playing this constructive role, Moscow surely bolstered the good will and trust of its neighbors, a move that could pay dividends.

“The clear message from Washington was not to use force,” said Mr. Mikeladze, adding that the dialogue with Mr. Putin “helped to avoid a [military] confrontation.” Had the Georgian government brought in firepower, Mr. Abashidze probably would have appealed to Moscow to move its troops in Adzharia against Georgian forces.

Mr. Saakashvili will help set up a temporary council in Adzharia until legislative elections are held next month. He has significantly bolstered Georgia’s cohesiveness through diplomatic dexterity and firm leadership. Moscow should also be commended for gracefully ushering out Mr. Abashidze.

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