BATUMI (Reuters)–The leaders of Georgia and its rebellious Ajaria region agreed on Wednesday to meet to defuse a crisis–which has strained ties with Georgia’s giant neighbor Russia.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili–who swept to power in a popular revolution last year–has been locked in conflict with the leader of autonomous Ajaria Aslan Abashidze–accusing him of hindering free parliamentary elections due in 11 days. Saakashvili and Abashidze are due to meet on Thursday in the regional capital Batumi–a Black Sea port near Turkey–the Ajarian leader told reporters–after seven hours of talks with Georgian parliamentary speaker Nino Burdzhanadze.
Georgia’s location on Russia’s southern border and work on a key Western oil pipeline running through it has focused the attention of both Moscow and Washington on the country.
Forces loyal to Abashidze prevented Saakashvili from entering Ajaria over the weekend. The president responded by slapping economic sanctions on the region–cutting rail and road access to Ajaria–closing its airspace–and blocking its port.
For his meeting on Thursday–Saakashvili will cross the same road checkpoint where Abashidze’s troops fired a warning shot at his convoy on Sunday–a presidential spokesman’said.
"I am a supporter of the idea that all issues should be solved not by using force but in a human fashion," Abashidze told reporters in Batumi–where soldiers and masked armed loyalists patrolled the streets and waterfront.
BLOCKADE SOON OVER?
"We have to do everything to make sure tomorrow’s meeting is meaningful," said Burdzhanadze–a Saakashvili ally–adding that the blockade might "no longer be an issue" after the talks.
The blockade has stopped oil shipmen’s from a 200,000 barrel per day terminal at Batumi.
Burdzhanadze previously played a key role in persuading pro-Russian Abashidze to allow presidential elections in Ajaria in January that resulted in a landslide victory for Saakashvili–a 36-year-old nationalist backed by the United States.
Ex-Soviet Georgia has had uneasy relations with its old colonial master–Russia–for most of the 12 years since the Soviet Union collapsed–often arising from Georgian suspicions that Moscow was trying to profit from autonomous movemen’s.
In an unannounced exercise–a Russian military base near Batumi fired rounds of tank shells into the sea on Tuesday where the Georgian coastguard was patrolling. Russia has urged Saakashvili to find a peaceful way out of the current crisis. But its tacit sympathy for Ajaria became clear when Moscow’s flamboyant mayor Yuri Luzhkov–a powerful politician at home–flew in on Tuesday to show solidarity with Abashidze–causing consternation among Georgian officials.
Luzhkov–who has business interests in the construction industry–is a close associate of Abashidze and Moscow building firms have picked up many lucrative contracts in Ajaria.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov showed some unease over Luzhkov–dodging a direct question on his exact mission.
He said Luzhkov was there in an "inter-regional" context–adding: "Given this–Luzhkov’s efforts have the support of the Russian leadership." He said indications that Saakashvili would meet Luzhkov offered hope for a solution.
The parliamentary elections on March 28 are a rerun of a poll last November when veteran leader Eduard Shevardnadze was still in power. That vote was widely seen as rigged.
Allies of Saakashvili are expected to do well and to support his efforts to cut corruption–unite the divided Caucasus nation of around 4.5 million people–and press for Russia to withdraw from two military bases.
Georgia has two openly separatist regions–Abkhazia and South Ossetia–where Tbilisi no longer exerts any control.