Ajaria Boss Revels in New Role

President Eduard Shevardnadze's troubles have played into the hands of Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze

Ajaria Boss Revels in New Role

President Eduard Shevardnadze's troubles have played into the hands of Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze

Thursday, 13 November, 2003

While the rest of Georgia has been in ferment in the week and a half since the parliamentary election, the autonomous Black Sea republic of Ajaria has remained entirely calm. And yet Ajaria and its leader Aslan Abashidze are now playing a central role in the ongoing political crisis.

This week, President Eduard Shevardnadze visited Ajaria to seal an informal alliance with his old rival Abashidze. The Ajarian leader then embarked on an unprecedented tour, visiting presidents Robert Kocharian in Armenia and Ilham Aliev in Azerbaijan before leaving for Moscow on November 13.

"Ajaria has helped Georgia more than once in difficult situations, when the nation's future was at stake," Shevardnadze told a meeting called in his honour in Batumi on November 10. "We have always been together, and we'll stay together."

The Georgian president's trip resulted in what the media have since branded the "Shevardnadze-Abashidze pact". Abashidze explained the rationale behind the new power alliance by saying, "We will not allow destructive forces to prevail in Georgia."

Abashidze's watchword has been order, often of a very repressive kind. And as street protests have convulsed Tbilisi and other Georgian cities, Batumi has been quiet. Local observers say this proves not only that Abashidze is fully in control there, but that the population fears "things could get worse."

"Essentially, two hopelessly doomed power clans have joined forces to survive," Tedo Jorbenadze, a Batumi-based independent journalist, told IWPR. "Shevardnadze needs Abashidze's support to remain in power, and vice versa, while the majority of Ajaria's population are simply afraid of bloodshed and re-division of the country, so they will agree to anything."

Ajaria has trod a different path from the rest of Georgia since 1991, when Aslan Abashidze rose to lead the autonomous republic. Abashidze slowly exerted complete control over his region and loosened ties with Tbilisi. He refused to accept any money from the federal budget, lobbied to keep the Russian military base in the republic and built up his own pro-Moscow foreign policy.

He even has his own special forces unit, which carries out joint exercises with troops from the Russian base.

Abashidze, who was a middle-ranking minister in Tbilisi in Soviet times, claims to come from an ancient dynasty in Ajaria and is continuing the tradition by having getting his son elected mayor of Batumi.

He has not travelled to Tbilisi for several years, saying he fears an assassination plot, and as a result Georgian leaders are forced to travel to Ajaria to do business with him,

Shevardnadze's trip to Batumi, and his pact with Abashidze, are signs of how difficult things have become for him.

Speculation is rampant about the meaning of the Ajarian leader's trips to Yerevan and Baku. "Shevardnadze and Abashidze will seek help from Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan," said Zurab Zhvania, a leader of the Burjanadze-Democrats bloc and former speaker of parliament. "Then Shevardnadze will offer Abashidze the post of parliament chairman and resign, whereupon the Ajarian leader will automatically become acting president of Georgia."

Irakly Batishvili of the pro-government bloc For a New Georgia told IWPR that the Ajarian leader's Yerevan and Baku trips were intended to preserve "Georgia's stability agenda, as both our neighbours have a vested interest in keeping Georgia stable."

Abashidze has already won enhanced powers, after the Ajarian parliament passed a resolution on November 9 appointing him supreme political and military leader - in other words de facto president. When the resolution becomes law, the "President of Ajaria", as the English-language version of the resolution calls him, will have the power to veto any ministerial decision, and negotiate with foreign powers on all matters, including military ones.

Abashidze's Agordzineba (Revival) party stands to do very well if the official results of the parliamentary election are upheld. Revival was awarded an eyebrow-raising 95 per cent when votes were counted in Ajaria.

Jemal Gogitidze, a Revival leader, told journalists, "We will fight to save Georgia....We will go to Tbilisi if we have to, to protect our voters....We will use the Russian military if necessary to support the legitimate government."

The Georgian opposition tried to challenge Abashidze's monopoly on power in Ajaria in the elections. David Berdzenishvili, the Batumi-born leader of the Republican Party, currently allied with Mikhail Saakishvili's National Movement, organized public meetings in Ajaria and ran for parliament from Batumi.

During the campaign, his rally was dispersed, and Berdzenishvili himself badly beaten by special forces in Batumi a few days before the polls.

"In Ajaria, the elections were completely fake," he told IWPR.

"The polls went fine. It was when the polling stations closed that mass rigging began. I know for a fact that election board members had prepared signed blank voting result forms in advance," another Batumi majority candidate, Zurab Mikeladze, agreed.

No one doubts however that Abashidze and his party do have genuine public support in Ajaria. "I sympathize with the National Movement slogans, but I voted for Revival, because it's our party," said Batumi resident Shorena Makharadze.

Some other locals polled by IWPR said they had voted for Revival because, unlike Georgia, Ajaria has never had any major internal strife. If the ruling party remains in place, they hope the republic will remain calm in the future.

It has been raining for days in sub-tropical Batumi, and the well-lit streets are perfectly tranquil. Standing on the waterfront in pouring rain, doctor Shota Beridze summed up the current sentiment in Batumi very aptly, "There's nothing to worry about. Maintaining order is the duty of the president, or presidents. We now have two, you know."

Eteri Turadze is editor of Batumelebi newspaper in Batumi.

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