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Ajaria: A Fool's Paradise?

Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze is fond of boasting that he has created a virtual "paradise" on the shores of the Black Sea. But not of all his subjects would agree with him.
By Ia Antadze

Although Aslan Abashidze lives just 500 metres away from his offices, he commutes to work in a seven-car motorcade. Every morning and evening, the entire street is sealed off by security troops: the Chairman of the Supreme Council of Ajaria doesn't like to take risks.


Over the past nine years, the tiny statelet on the Black Sea has effectively become Abashidze's personal fiefdom. His control over local affairs is so complete that political observers have nicknamed the republic "Aslandia" and his defiant stance against Eduard Shevardnadze's regime is the envy of regional leaders across Georgia.


Earlier this month, Shevardnadze's parliament passed a special decree reconfirming Ajaria's autonomy in a bid to fill the political vacuum which had existed between Tbilisi and Batumi. It is thought the gesture was the result of a behind-the-scenes political deal between the Georgian president and Abashidze, who was a rival contender in April's presidential elections.


Abashidze unexpectedly withdrew from the electoral race just days after Shevardnadze paid an official visit to Ajaria. The subsequent confusion of local voters reportedly played a significant part in Shevardnadze's sweeping victory at the polls.


But Ajaria's fierce independence goes beyond the antagonistic relationship between the two leaders. The seeds of division were sown in 1921 when the Communist regime created an Ajarian Autonomous Republic, probably as part of a territorial deal with Turkey. At the time, the region stood as a unique Muslim enclave within the Georgian state - although the population's religious convictions were never more than skin deep.


This sense of splendid isolation becomes apparent the moment you cross the border from Georgia. At Cholokhi, six rows of concrete barriers criss-cross the road while Ajarian border-guards stop and search every vehicle with an unusual dedication to duty.


The middle-aged man who rifled through my luggage was eager to assure me that he was one of "Babu's lads" - "Babu", meaning "Grandad", is the nickname given to Ajaria's head of state. There was a second checkpoint just outside Batumi - here our driver was fined 16 lari ($8) because his passport photo was out of date. He got away with a bribe.


Although we were just five hours' drive from Tbilisi, we felt like strangers in a strange land. This impression was reinforced by our first views of the Ajarian capital.


Whereas Georgia is overshadowed by an atmosphere of lingering discontent, Ajaria boasts the renaissance spirit. New buildings have sprung up across the capital - three banks, a chess hall, a number of restored or recently built churches for various denominations, a sports school, private hotels and a maternity ward. The Museum of the Revolution has been transformed into an art gallery.


The so-called "First Quarter" is the jewel in Batumi's crown. Here Aslan Abashidze occupies the top two floors of a four-storey building overlooking the state drama theatre where the Chairman of the Supreme Council meets the press every Monday. The entire quarter is immaculate, swarming with armed police and illuminated by vast spotlights positioned on strategic rooftops.


Abashidze's dynasty dominates the First Quarter. His son, Giorgi, is thought to own two major city centre businesses - Revival M, which produces construction materials, and Revival N, which manufactures high-speed motor boats. His daughter, Diana, occupies a luxurious downtown mansion and a recently-opened modern discotheque was named Dianaland in her honour.


Beyond the First Quarter, the city rapidly disintegrates into the familiar post-Soviet sprawl of dark streets, derelict apartment blocks, vacant shop windows, stray dogs and human suffering. And it was in these shabbier quarters that we decided to test the legend carefully woven by the Ajarian authorities - that they have created a paradise on the shores of the Black Sea.


Although journalists are generally regarded with suspicion by the Abashidze regime, most people were eager to answer our questions. Some even thanked us at the end of the interview - but no one would give us their names.


Most people we met had come to Batumi in search of work - lured, no doubt, by tales of the Ajarian "paradise".


A young woman selling ice-cream on the street told us she and her husband had left the provincial town of Samtredia after both were laid off from local businesses. But, like many, they soon discovered the streets of Batumi were not paved with gold. The woman's husband, a plumber, works irregularly while she is paid 3 lari ($1.50) a day. The couple somehow manage to send 40 lari a month back to their children.


A newspaper seller had come to Batumi after losing his job in a Tbilisi fruit-juice plant. "Life is good and peaceful here," he says. An ex-brewery worker cannot agree. "I haven't had an income at all in recent times. Nobody works in my family. We just sell whatever we've got left."


This is a common story. A middle-aged woman from the village of Chanari said, "We can hardly make ends meet. There are five of us and none of us has a job." She could remember only two families in her village who were in regular employment.


"When they say Aslan Abashidze takes care of his people, I'd like to know what they mean," she added, in a rare criticism of the republic's fatherly-looking leader. "He certainly doesn't take care of my family - or my relatives or my neighbours for that matter. And I need taking care of. There was a time when the entire village clubbed together to buy me medication."


Sharing is still part of the local mentality. One of the residents of a nine-storey apartment block said his was the only family with a stable income. "We keep something aside for our neighbours. Some borrow one lari, some two. Five's about the maximum."


For many, the haven offered by Ajaria is a half-way house. A woman selling cigarettes and sunflower seeds told us she was originally from Tskhinvali, in South Ossetia, but married in Abkhazia. She had lost all her relatives in the Ossetian and Abkhazian conflicts - her husband had died in a plane crash. "It's better here than in Tbilisi but Sukhumi [the capital of Abkhazia] was a hundred times better than Batumi is today."


The woman says her house in Sukhumi is still standing and she lives for the day when she will be able to return there.


There is a sense that many people in Ajaria are living in a fool's paradise. Salaries and pensions are paid on time - largely due to the fact that Abashidze ignores his tax responsibilities to the central government. And it is rare that people blame the Chairman of the Supreme Council for their hardships.


Keti Kobaladze, a Georgian psychologist who accompanied me on the trip, said this inadequate perception of reality was dangerous. "People think they live in paradise because they are paid 75 lari a month but, in Georgia, the minimum wage needed for a basic standard of living is estimated at 250."


The people bask in the warm glow of Russian patronage - the local TV information programme is translated into Russian every day while Russian language is omnipresent in the streets. Moscow continues to run a large military base in Batumi and the sumptuous dachas of the former nomenclature still litter the coastline.


But, for Abashidze to maintain the illusion of prosperity, he has to keep a tight lid on any murmurs of dissent. One old friend told me, "Security ministry personnel occupy the first floor of my office. We usually have to talk in whispers and it makes us envious to see TV footage of Georgian employees preventing their own bosses from coming to work."


The internal passport regime - which has ceased to exist in Georgia - remains strict in the Ajarian republic. Movement around the country is thus restricted by red tape. We asked an official at the Ministry of Justice which legal statute in the constitution covered this practice. "I don't know. That's not part of my responsibilities," he said.


On our return journey, over the 35 kilometres of road between Batumi and Cholokhi, our bus was stopped six times. On these occasions, the patrols accepted cigarettes as a bribe. Our driver explained that the border guards are always on the lookout for cars with Tbilisi licence plates. Ajaria may be a kind of paradise - but the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.


Ia Antadze is a journalist for the Tbilisi newspaper Kavkasioni.


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