Adjaria Secession Fears

The Georgian leadership dismisses fears that the autonomous republic of

Adjaria Secession Fears

The Georgian leadership dismisses fears that the autonomous republic of

Tuesday, 24 July, 2001

By Jaba Devdariani in Washington DC (CRS No. 91, 24-Jul-01)

President Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia has responded coolly to the announcement that the autonomous Republic of Adjaria has adopted crucial constitutional changes and called parliamentary and local elections in the autumn, without consulting the central government. With no prior warning, Shevardnadze only learned of the plan through the media.

The July 7 constitutional changes form the latest in a long series of challenges to the national government from Adjaria's leader, Aslan Abashidze. As a result of the reforms, Adjaria will now have a bicameral legislature, with an upper chamber of ten senators and a lower chamber of 35 deputies. The latter will be elected by proportional representation and is therefore likely to be dominated by Abashidze's Union for Georgian Revival. The media reaction in Tbilisi has been less restrained. The daily Dilis Gazeti called the change "shocking", while the influential Rezonansi predicted further moves by Abashidze to stress the republic's independence.

Aslan Abashidze first rose to prominence during the coup against Georgia's president Zviad Gamsakhurdia in 1992. Acting as an intermediary between pro Gamsakhurdia forces and the military, he kept Adjaria out of the conflict and created a permanent power base in the republic's capital, Batumi.

Abashidze's Union for Georgian Revival now also forms the core of the largest opposition faction within the Georgian parliament. Abashidze jealously guards Adjaria's autonomy and challenges Tbilisi's authority at every opportunity. In one typically defiant gesture, he refused to free a prisoner (one of his former political opponents) who had been pardoned by President Shevardnadze, denouncing the pardon as interference in Adjaria's "internal affairs". On occasion, his refusal to hand over lucrative port and cross border taxes collected in Adjaria has brought Georgia to the brink of bankruptcy.

In May, Adjaria even advanced a counter-claim of 135 million Georgian laris ($60.5 million) allegedly owed to Adjaria for pensions and organizations funded from the federal budget.

Some in Tbilisi have predicted that the constitutional changes mark a first move towards secession. "This is another step to political independence," said Vakhtang Khmaladze of the Industry Will Save Georgia movement. Others, such head of the Citizens' Union of Georgia, CUG, parliamentary faction Revaz Adamia habitually detect the influence of Moscow in the autonomous republics. Russia "will go to extreme measures to retain the strategic balance in the Transcaucasus," he told Georgian television (see CRS No. 90, Russian "Imperialism" Threatens).

However, the government and main opposition responses have been significantly cooler. Interviewed on national radio on July 9, President Shevardnadze commented only that any changes must respect the Georgian constitution. "This is not a move towards secession, but an adjustment within the legal framework offered by the constitution," said Jumber Patiashvili, leader of the main parliamentary opposition.

Indeed, ambiguities within the Georgian constitution lay at the heart of Adjaria's continued sparring with Tbilisi. Adopted in 1995, the constitution proclaims the desirability of a federal system and guarantees autonomous status for both Abkhazia and Adjaria, but offers no legal definition of their autonomy. It is also notably vague over where the boundaries between regional and central government powers lie. In 1995, legislators postponed defining such boundaries within the constitution until the situation in Abkhazia became clearer.

Six years later, however, the constitution remains vague and incomplete on the issue of autonomy. Abashidze is therefore free to exploit this ambiguity to fashion Adjaria's constitutional relationship with Tbilisi on an ad hoc basis. Politicians in Tbilisi point out that only after the Georgian constitution is clarified, will Abashidze's hand be stayed. "Six years have passed since the adoption of the constitution and perhaps the most important aspects of state-building remain undefined," said Akaki Asatiani, leader of the Traditionalist Party. "Hence situations like the one today are likely to recur."

However, those who view the constitutional changes as a movement towards secession are overlooking Abashidze's other role as a key figure within the national opposition, which is currently locked in a bitter struggle against the ruling CUG. In an address on republican television on June 19, Abashidze likened the central leadership - and specifically parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania - to fascists.

Part of the opposition strategy has been to target the law on local elections, thereby highlighting the government's difficulties in this area. Adjaria's decision to stage elections in the autumn has forced the government to call nationwide local elections at the same time to prevent a fragmentation of the whole local election process.

Thus, Abashidze has killed two political birds with one stone: while promoting Adjaria's autonomous interests, he has also scored a triumph for the national opposition. However, the central government's inability to define and assert its rightful role over the country, as the ultimate guarantor of its citizens' rights and freedoms, is disconcerting. So long as the ruling party responds only to symptoms while ignoring root causes, it risks multiplying the ranks of defiant regional leaders.

Jaba Devdariani is a regular IWPR contributor, a founding director of the United Nations Association of Georgia, and research director of UNAPAR (UN Association Program of Applied Research)

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