. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Adzharia: All Quiet for Now

After six days of high tension, the confrontation between the authorities in Tbilisi and the autonomous republic of Adzharia ended after face-to-face talks in Batumi between Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Adzharian leader Aslan Abashidze.

The settlement involved an apparent climb down by Abashidze, who pledged to allow opposition political activity in his strictly controlled fiefdom, as well as a possible sharing of control of Batumi port and its customs revenues with Tbilisi. In return, Saakashvili announced the lifting of an economic blockade imposed on Adzharia last week.

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As Georgia's biggest seaport, Batumi is also used by landlocked Armenia, whose borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey have been closed to any traffic since 1991, as one of its main outlets to the outside world. During his years as the sole, absolute ruler of Adzharia, Abashidze has privatized the Batumi port and its customs service.

The income from the Batumi port and customs has allowed Abashidze to equip a large private army -- and to wine, dine and pay bribes to various Russian military and civilian officials.

During the rule of Saakashvili's predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze, Abashidze formed a political party called "Vozrozhdenie," and clearly harbored ambitions to eventually take over in Tbilisi. But the fall of Shevardnadze in November's "Rose Revolution" catapulted Saakashvili to power in Tbilisi and dashed Abashidze's hopes. Since then, the Adzharian leader has openly opposed Saakashvili, obviously worried that he might lose control of his fiefdom.

Russia has maintained a military garrison in Batumi since Soviet times and the port has been used to supply other Russian bases in Georgia and Armenia. In 1999, during an OSCE summit in Istanbul, Russia promised to close its bases in Georgia by January 2004. This deadline has passed and now Russia says it needs 11 more years and some half a billion dollars to complete withdrawal.

Courtesy of Abashidze, Russia for the past decade could move men and military equipment through Batumi without asking Tbilisi. The Adzharian tangle involves the military, political and economic interests of Russia, Turkey and the West (as a major oil pipeline is being built in the region to bring Caspian oil to the world market).

Last week, Abashidze's gunmen prevented Saakashvili from entering Adzharian territory. Later Abashidze announced that Georgian government forces were planning the imminent invasion of Adzharia and demanded the Russian military's help.

It soon transpired that Tbilisi was not actually planning an immediate invasion and that there were in fact no forces amassed on the Adzharian border. Apparently Abashidze hoped to provoke Saakashvili into military action by personally insulting him. But Saakashvili, after some tough talk, under diplomatic pressure from Washington and Moscow, decided to use economic pressure instead. The Georgian navy began stopping foreign ships from reaching Batumi. A blockade of Adzharia, if strictly imposed, could cause economic disaster in the entire region.

Last week, the crisis in Adzharia also caused a commotion in and around the Kremlin. Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov went to Batumi to "defend his brother" Abashidze. A foreign policy official close to Vladimir Putin told me that Luzhkov's move was not viewed favorably in the Kremlin, though it was decided not to publicly disavow him.

I was told that Abashidze was influenced by a group of aggressive generals, led by a former Russian defense minister. But by last Friday a decision was taken in the Kremlin to put serious pressure on Abashidze to stop causing trouble. I was also told that during the crisis Saakashvili had behaved well, in line with his promises to Putin during their recent meeting in the Kremlin.

It all ended well: Saakashvili finally visited Adzharia and displayed personal valor in facing crowds of Abashidze gunmen. It was proven that a large part of the Adzharian population in fact support Saakashvili. But if Saakashvili, in the future, actually tries to oust the Abashidze clan, an armed conflict may still unfold.

What is even more troubling is the incoherence of our policy in the Caucasus (and in many other places). Putin, receiving advice from different factions, constantly changes his opinion. Strange groups of corrupt adventurers often succeed in hijacking foreign, defense and national security decision-making to meet their specific needs, while Russia's true national interests are ignored.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.