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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Elements Elude Control Of Baron of Adzharia

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BATUMI, Georgia -- There's something very dispiriting about a seaside town in winter.

Blackpool Pleasure Beach in the north of England is depressing enough in the high season, with Lancashire lads throwing up from the top of the world's largest rollercoaster and missing children by the dozen wailing for their parents or another bag of chips. Come October, when the last rides grind to a halt and Mrs. Ramsbotham closes down her Seaview Palace Bed and Breakfast until next April, it's about as appealing as the jellied eels she serves up every evening for tea.

Imagine, then, Batumi -- a former Soviet Black Sea resort, its seafront dominated by the sprawling Intourist Hotel. It's so big, it takes me ten minutes to find the entrance. My footsteps echo across the deserted reception area. I can't make out the girl behind the desk because the electricity has cut out.

Outside, a lone fisherman on Batumi beach pulls his coat tighter around himself -- it looks as though it's going to rain. Apart from him, there isn't a soul to be seen.

"Have you got a room for one person?" I ask the receptionist. I know from my guidebook that the Intourist, once the favorite hangout of the Politburo, has 400 rooms and five restaurants.

"No," she says. "We're full up."

I've come to Batumi, capital of the autonomous republic of Adzharia, to speak to President Aslan Abashidze, who is known to run a tight ship in his tiny corner of Georgia. Sitting on the border between Georgia and Turkey, Adzharia is said to be the richest part of the country because of the unusually high taxes customs officials demand from anyone importing goods.

Abashidze welcomes me to his presidential palace with open arms. Before the interview, he tells me, he'd like to show me around and then I will receive my gifts. We could be in Windsor Castle. Every room is ablaze with chandeliers. I can see my face in the highly polished parquet floors, and the walnut cabinets are full to bursting with Austrian crystal.

A Russian current affairs web site recently named Abashidze the most influential politician in the Caucasus, after the president of Azerbaijan, Heidar Aliyev. Following the recent upheavals in Georgia -- two weeks ago, President Eduard Shevardnadze fired his entire Cabinet after a bungled tax raid on an outspoken television station -- there has been talk that Abashidze could become the country's next president.

"If the people want me to be president, I will consider it," he tells me. Just then, the skies open and the rain starts to flow in torrents. The president holds his head in his hands.

"Batumi in the winter," he sighs. "It's about as bad as it gets."

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.