Saakashvili Cracks Down Before Poll

APA man fishing in Tbilisi's Kura River on Wednesday, over a wall plastered with posters from January's presidential election.
TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili moved against rebellious Adzharian leader Aslan Abashidze and launched a bold crackdown on crime in a lawless region as tension rose ahead of parliamentary elections.

Reasserting control in his fractious Caucasus country before Sunday's poll, Saakashvili stripped 400 officials in the troublesome Black Sea region of Adzharia of their diplomatic passports, including Abashidze.

And he sent a heavily armed force to crack down on crime bosses in mountainous Svaneti, declaring: "The times of Al Capone in Georgia are over."

The young, U.S.-trained lawyer is expected to gain a huge mandate to pull his rundown country up by its bootstraps in a poll being watched closely by Russia and the United States.

Saakashvili won 96 percent of votes in a presidential poll in January after leading a bloodless revolution that toppled veteran leader Eduard Shevardnadze. He has pledged to unite his divided country and stamp out rampant corruption.

But rebel regions outside Tbilisi's control will give him an uncomfortable reminder of his limits by shunning the poll.

In Adzharia, where Saakashvili and regional leader Abashidze met for a political showdown last week, it was unclear whether free campaigning would go ahead as agreed after their encounter.

"There can be no logical explanation for what is happening in Georgia right now," the 66-year-old Abashidze said in an agitated appearance on local television early Thursday after the cancellation of his diplomatic passport.

"It's as if all of us were locked up in a madhouse. ... If things continue like this, only bad will come of it."

Abashidze, whose Black Sea region bordering Turkey has sought autonomy but not secession, also agreed after last week's talks to supervision of regional finances. In return, Saakashvili lifted an economic blockade.

Their March 18 encounter in the Adzharian capital, Batumi, had appeared to defuse a crisis. But after the latest move by Saakashvili, Adzharia might still prove a flashpoint.

Separatist Abkhazia, further north on the Black Sea coast, will disregard the election. Many will also boycott the poll in another breakaway territory, South Ossetia.

Critics say the thumping election victory by Saakashvili's allies will bring problems for the 36-year-old nationalist whose impetuous actions often suggest he needs checks and balances. It took phone calls from Washington, keen that construction work on a Western pipeline for Caspian oil not be affected, and from Moscow for Saakashvili to temper his approach to Abashidze.

His success in tapping into frustration arising from the poverty and economic chaos of the Shevardnadze years has left his opponents in disarray.

Political analyst Gia Nodia said it was questionable whether any opposition party would make the 7 percent threshold for gaining seats. "We'll basically have a single-party parliament, which is not good, of course," Nodia said.

The election is a rerun of much of a rigged poll that led to Shevardnadze's downfall. Only three parties, including Abashidze's Revival, can dent a runaway victory for Saakashvili's National Movement-Democrats bloc in the contest for 150 party-list seats in the 235-seat chamber.

A wild card may be the Freedom Party, led by Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, son of Georgia's first post-Soviet president. He has quickly built up a following in his father's old stronghold of western Georgia.