Mon, Jun 21, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Voters head to polls in separatist Georgia region

REUTERS , BATUMI, GEORGIA

Georgia held local elections in its Black Sea region of Adzhara Sunday which it hoped would strengthen central control over the once-wayward province, six weeks after its rebellious leader was forced to flee.

The ousting of Aslan Abashidze last month was an early victory for President Mikhail Saakashvili, who came to power pledging to restore central rule in his ex-Soviet republic of 5.5 million, riven by separatism.

But he faces a tougher task in trying to rein in two other rebel regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which have de facto independence after fighting secessionist wars with Georgian central authorities.

Saakashvili, a 36-year-old US-trained lawyer, is backed by Western countries keen to see him bring stability to a volatile country that is becoming a major oil transit route.

Russia, meanwhile, sees the southern Caucasus as of key strategic interest and has in the past given tacit support to separatism.

A total of eight parties and one political bloc were contesting 30 seats in a local council election in Adzhara, whose 200,000-barrel-per-day Batumi oil port could help bolster Georgia's lean national budget.

Two pro-presidential parties -- Saakashvili/Victorious Adzhara and Berdzenishvili/Republicans -- were the main contenders, running on promises to improve social conditions and winkle out corrupt officials who rose to power under Abashidze.

The two were expected to get a majority on the new council.

David Berdzenishvili, who leads the second of the two parties, has been close to the Georgian president in the past but yesterday he leveled charges of vote-rigging against Saakashvili's supporters.

"These elections are a test of our future cooperation [with Saakashvili]. If the authorities conduct crude vote-rigging, we will go into opposition and cease cooperating," Berdzenishvili said.

The departure of Abashidze, who had ruled Adzhara as a fiefdom for 14 years and had been increasingly asserting the region's independence from Tbilisi, ended months of tension over control of transiting oil and the region's resources.

Voters expressed optimism. "I'm hoping for a better life and a change in the regime that existed here for so many years," said Gocha Beradze, 30, from the village of Salibauri..

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