John McCaslin

My first experience with post-Soviet Georgia's autonomous republic of Adjara was when Hillary Rodham Clinton's younger brothers, Hugh and Tony Rodham, sought to firmly establish the family in the nut business by importing hazelnuts from its Black Sea capital of Batumi.

The first lady put the kibosh on her brothers' nutty scheme, however, after it became clear that one too many international thugs, not the least of whom was suspected of being a nuclear-arms smuggler, was mixed up in the multimillion-dollar venture.

Now Adjara has surfaced again, its 65-year-old leader, former communist official Aslan Abashidze - "Babu" ("grandfather") to his admirers - telling President Bush in a letter that Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgia's popular 36-year-old revolutionary president welcomed to the White House last month, threatened to launch "airstrikes" against Batumi in advance of parliamentary elections held last Sunday.

"To put this in a parallel American context," Mr. Abashidze wrote to Mr. Bush, "this would be tantamount to a U.S. president threatening to use U.S. military forces to bomb Austin and invade and occupy Texas."

What a twist that would be: the newly elected, pro-Western president, his Georgian government supported by Mr. Bush, flexing his military muscle to overthrow an aging autocratic leader of a breakaway republic who happens to be a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Cause for such a turf war?

Adjara is blessed with Batumi, Georgia's lone deep-water port that began exporting Caspian oil to the world 125 years ago. Today it's not just oil. As we speak, Mr. Abashidze brokers one lucrative shipping deal after another, aiming to triple the size of Batumi's port terminals in just a few years.

Mr. Saakashvili, who assumed his final obstacles on Georgia's road to democracy were holdovers of former President Eduard Shevardnadze's regime, now charges that his Tbilisi government is not receiving its fair share of Adjara's royalties. He likens the heavily guarded Mr. Abashidze, who sports Italian designer clothes and motorcades around in reinforced green Hummers, to a "feudal lord."

One can appreciate Mr. Saakashvili's pressures as he rebuilds his country after decades of Soviet rule. And having Adjara on board would help tremendously, given that bustling Batumi, with a population of nearly 200,000, is in better economic shape than Georgia's landlocked capital of Tbilisi.

"Oil by far is Adjara's biggest moneymaker," Frenchman Eric-Louis Melenec, manager of the European Cooperation Maritime Agency, told me as we flew from London to Batumi last week aboard Mr. Abashidze's Soviet-made YAK-42.

John McCaslin

John McCaslin is a contributing columnist on and author of Inside The Beltway: Offbeat Stories, Scoops, and Shenanigans from around the Nation's Capital .

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