Ratcheting up pressure against the rebellious leader of an autonomous area on the Black Sea, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on Tuesday leveled treason charges against a general who had declared loyalty to the regional strongman.
Saakashvili said the general had "betrayed his country" by throwing his support to Aslan Abashidze, the defiant head of the Adzharia region in this former Soviet republic. Wanted posters with the mutinous general's photo "will be put up on trees all over Georgia," Saakashvili said.
"We have not given Adzharia to anyone, and no criminal will be able to break the strong will of the state that Georgia is indivisible and has a single set of laws," the president added, in comments reported by the Russian news agency Interfax.
Georgia's Supreme Court issued an arrest warrant for Maj. Gen. Roman Dumbadze, who on Monday told reporters in the Adzharian capital, Batumi, that he would take orders only from Abashidze. The Georgian prosecutor general's office accused the general of treason, defiance of legitimate authorities, creation of an illegal armed group, illegal acquisition of firearms and abuse of power.
The general, who headed the Georgian army brigade based in Adzharia until the central government fired him April 3, said Monday that he was still in command of the brigade and was placing it under the regional leader's control, Russian news agencies reported. He alluded to the possibility of civil war and called on the parents of Georgian soldiers "to warn their sons not to get involved in an armed invasion of Adzharia."
Many of the brigade's officers, however, refused to obey him and traveled to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, where Saakashvili thanked them Tuesday for remaining loyal.
Adzharia has autonomy under Georgia's constitution, but Abashidze has run the region like a private fiefdom, keeping a tight rein on dissent and taking on additional powers. This was tolerated by former President Eduard A. Shevardnadze, who resigned in November under the pressure of massive protests, but Saakashvili has pledged to bring the region back within the framework of the constitution.
The U.S.-educated Saakashvili, 36, now faces "a moment of truth," Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Tbilisi, said in a telephone interview.
"A young leader who is popular, who came on a white horse, is confronting harsh reality," Rondeli said. "It's an open confrontation between Abashidze's clan ... and the central government."
"Is Mr. Saakashvili capable of being a full leader?" he said. "Is he powerful enough?"
Abashidze is a former Communist official who is descended from a family that ruled Adzharia when the region was under Turkish control as part of the Ottoman Empire. During those centuries, most of the people of Adzharia -- who are ethnic Georgians and speak the Georgian language -- converted to Islam. Most Georgians in other regions are Orthodox Christians. This history contributes to Abashidze's hold on power. The central government in Tbilisi, concerned about triggering a backlash, stresses that its conflict is with him, not the people of Adzharia.
Rondeli predicted that the Georgian president would use legal and economic measures to "slowly suffocate" Abashidze rather than invade the autonomous region. Georgia's parliament, dominated by Saakashvili's allies since a March election, appears to be gearing up to further undercut Abashidze.
The leader of the Republican Party of Georgia, which is part of the ruling bloc, told reporters Monday that at the first meeting of the new parliament, scheduled this week, his party would propose the abolition of Abashidze's position on the grounds that it is not specified in the constitution. Power in Adzharia should be held by the region's Supreme Council, said David Berdzenishvili, the party leader.
Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze said Monday that parliament was expected to pass a statement calling on Adzharia to obey the constitution, Russia's Itar-Tass news service reported.
The standoff between Saakashvili and Abashidze is taking place against the backdrop of preparations by the Georgian armed forces for war games this month near Poti, a Black Sea town controlled by Tbilisi that is near Adzharia.
Georgian Su-25 ground attack aircraft recently flew low repeatedly over the Adzharian town of Kobuleti and nearby villages, Interfax reported. Residents of the area believed that "the flights of the combat aircraft are meant as a show of force by Tbilisi and as an attempt to sow fear among the residents of Adzharia," it said.
Georgian authorities, in comments reported by Russian news agencies, denied that the flights had anything to do with upping the pressure on Abashidze.
"The flights are connected with the preparation for the coming war games and have no other meaning," said Givi Iukuridze, armed forces chief of the general staff.