POTI (AFP/Interfax)–Georgia has imposed an economic blockade on its autonomous region of Ajaria in a bid to make leader Aslan Abashidze recognize the central government’s authority.
The move was the latest step in an escalating armed standoff–sparked early Sunday when armed supporters of Abashidze barred Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili from entering the coastal territory.
Tbilisi says unauthorized armed groups are operating on the territory of the region on the Black Sea coast–and has vowed to bring Ajaria back under central control–in time for March 28 parliamentary elections.
Abashidze charges that Georgia’s new leadership will use the election to oust him from power.
Tensions heightened as Russia–which has a military base on Ajarian territory–warned Georgia of "grave and unpredictable consequences" if Ajaria comes under attack.
Georgian ministers said Monday they had no plans to send the military into Ajaria–but there were still fears the crisis could erupt into armed conflict–with Ajaria’s leader warning that Tbilisi’s stance was leading the country toward bloodshed.
Abashidze confirmed that a state of emergency has been declared in the autonomous republic–and a curfew introduced.
Abashidze avoided giving a direct answer to questions about the possibility of mobilizing the republic’s population–but said: "I am not hiding the fact that the entire republic is ready to defend its region."
The situation in the nation has been stable for 13 days–but the Georgian president’s actions may disrupt the balance–Abashidze said. "One’s ambitions should not be above the interests of the state," he said.
The local opposition–supporters of Saakashvili–has been banned from holding pre-election rallies in Batumi–Abashidze said.
"We have warned them and will take the corresponding measures. If they try–it will end badly," he said
Saakashvili gave Abashidze a deadline of Monday evening to recognize the government’s authority over his region or face unspecified consequences.
Starting on Monday morning–Saakashvili ordered the closure of Ajaria’s Black Sea port–and its border with Turkey–and cut-off the region’s road and rail links with the rest of Georgia.
He added that criminal charges would be brought against Ajaria’s leaders–and their bank accounts frozen.
"We are dealing. . . with an attempt to stage a mutiny against Georgia–and this is an armed mutiny," Saakashvili told reporters from his crisis center in Poti–a coastal town just north of Ajaria.
"Georgia is facing a clear threat of disintegration…. No major cargo will enter or leave (Monday) from the territory of Ajaria."
But the 36-year-old leader said he still favored a peaceful resolution of the crisis–adding that "not all the resources for dialogue have been exhausted."
The blockade is likely to deal a devastating blow to Ajaria’s economy–which depends on income from the transit of goods across its territory.