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Ajaria to Elect  New Supreme Council - 2004-06-20

Residents of Georgia's autonomous province of Ajaria are electing a new local government, in a special election called after last month's ouster of authoritarian leader Aslan Abashidze. Parties loyal to Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili are expected to dominate the race.

The interim authorities in Ajaria say Sunday's election will be the first clean vote in the region in more than a decade.

Previous elections under Mr. Abashidze were marred by vote fraud, and violence and intimidation against the political opposition. But this time around, the opposition has been allowed to campaign freely.

Ten parties and the Saakashvili-Victorious Ajaria bloc are competing for 30 seats in the Supreme Council, but the bloc is expected to win the most seats. The other strong party, the Republicans, is running on a pledge to bring more autonomy to the strategically vital region on Georgia's Black Sea coast.

The newly-elected legislature will, in turn, elect Ajaria's new leader. The chamber will also approve, or reject, President Saakashvili's nominee for the post of presidential envoy to the region.

Sunday's election is another milestone for President Saakashvili, who has engineered two political revolutions in Georgia in less than a year.

In November, he led the massive street protests in Tbilisi that forced veteran leader Eduard Shevardnadze to resign. Some six months later, he gave Mr. Abashidze a deadline to resign, encouraging thousands of residents to come out into the streets in protest against him. Within a day, Mr. Abashidze fled to Moscow, where he remains in exile. Mr. Abashidze had tried to defy the authority of Georgia's central government.

More than one-third of Ajaria's registered voters, or roughly 107,000 people, need to turn out to cast ballots in order to validate the election, which is being monitored by international and local observers.

Campaigning in the region earlier this week, President Saakashvili said voters must ensure that Georgia's revival begins in Ajaria, because, he said, its success would ultimately spread to the rest of the country, which he has pledged to unify.

But many analysts believe that will be easier said than done. The other two provinces defying Tbilisi's central rule, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, have broken away from Georgia and declared independence, after defeating Georgian forces in separate wars in the 1990s.

President Saakashvili's pledge to unify Georgia since his election earlier this year has heightened tensions with the regions, and raised fears of renewed civil conflict.

Earlier this month, Georgia's ambassador to Russia said Georgia is not interested in using force to bring South Ossetia and Abkhazia back, or under central rule.

Ambassador Konstantin Kemulakiya said claims by the break-away regions that Georgia intends to use force to reclaim South Ossetia and Abkhazia are, in his words, simply not true.