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Abashidze Will Not Leave Ajaria Despite Massive Protests - 2004-05-05

The leader of Georgia's autonomous Ajaria region said that he has no plans to leave Ajaria, despite massive public calls for his resignation and an offer of safe passage from Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.

Aslan Abashidze appeared on his own Ajarian television channel late Wednesday to say that he has no plans to leave Ajaria.

Earlier, local news reports said the renegade leader, who resists Tbilisi's central rule, would be stepping down on Wednesday. Mr. Abashidze said he was waiting to discuss the ongoing crisis with Georgia with Russia's top security official, Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said earlier in the day he was sending Mr. Ivanov to the region at Georgia's request. Last November, Mr. Ivanov carried out a similar trip to Georgia, where he was instrumental in negotiations securing veteran leader Eduard Shevardnadze's resignation.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili also took to the national airwaves Wednesday evening to say that he was ready to provide full security guarantees to Aslan Abashidze and his family, if they leave Ajaria and go abroad. Mr. Saakashvili said the offer included a pledge not to seek his extradition.

He also announced plans to institute direct presidential rule in Ajaria, until new elections can be held.

Meanwhile, demonstrations continued in the streets of Batumi, the capital of the autonomous Georgian region. This man was among the 15,000 opposition protesters who demand Mr. Abashidze's resignation. The man said that Ajaria's people are sick to death of Mr. Abashidze. ?Let him leave,? he added.

Many other protesters said that the local police in Ajaria were telling them they were on the side of the demonstrators. A police officer, in comments broadcast on Russian television, explained why. The officer said that his men are not a political organization, but rather serve the people.

Aside from the police, Ajaria Deputy Interior Minister Elgudzha Dzhincharadze is also reported to have joined the opposition. There are also reports that some members of parliament and officials of Ajaria television have resigned.

The crisis flared anew when Mr. Abashidze ordered security forces to blow up major bridges connecting Ajaria to Georgia on Sunday. President Saakashvili responded by issuing an ultimatum, which gives Ajaria's leader until next Wednesday to resign.