Ajaria's Ex-Leader Charged

Arrest warrant against Aslan Abashidze adds to concerns that Tbilisi is not playing fair.

Ajaria's Ex-Leader Charged

Arrest warrant against Aslan Abashidze adds to concerns that Tbilisi is not playing fair.

Wednesday, 9 November, 2005
The Georgian authorities this week issued an arrest warrant for the exiled former leader of Ajaria, Aslan Abashidze, after a court charged him with crimes ranging from terrorism to illegally appropriating government property.

But in sharp contrast to the general elation when Abashidze fled the country for Russia in May 2004, many local observers criticised the government’s latest decision as evidence of President Mikheil Saakashvili government’s perceived growing authoritarianism.

President Saakashvili, critics say, has gone back on a public promise to grant Abashidze immunity when he stepped down as Ajarian president.

They also question the legality of the government’s seizure of all the Abashidze family’s property, and allege that some items may have been misappropriated rather than sold off and the proceeds used for public purposes.

Abashidze, now 66, ruled Ajaria as his own personal fiefdom after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and was a constant thorn in the side of Tbilisi officials. In addition to pursuing pro-Russian policies that diverged from those of the central Georgian government, he refused to hand over locally-raised revenues to Tbilisi, including millions of dollars earned in customs duties from cross-border trade with neighbouring Turkey.

He was also a complicating factor in national politics, using his region’s carefully controlled votes to support one politician or another. In the run-up to the “Rose Revolution” of November 2003, he threw his weight behind President Eduard Shevardnadze, angering the opposition.

Six months after Shevardnadze left office, the standoff between the central government and Ajaria reached a head. Saakashvili and his team of young reformers turned their attention to bringing the autonomous province to heel.

In an act of defiance, the Abashidze administration blew up a bridge linking Ajaria with the rest of the country. A violent confrontation seemed imminent.

Saakashvili, supported by mass demonstrations in the Ajarian capital Batumi, refused to back down. In the end, Abashidze fled Georgia with the assistance of Igor Ivanov, at the time secretary of Russia’s Security Council.

"I guarantee immunity to Aslan Abashidze, [Ajarian] Security Minister Soso Gogitidze, [Interior Minister] Jemal Gogitidze and their entourage,” Saakashvili said upon arriving in the capital with flowers and mass jubilation. “I promise that nothing bad will be done to them if they leave Georgia."

What a difference a year and a half makes. On December 5, the Batumi municipal court upheld the findings of Georgia’s chief prosecutor that Abashidze could be charged for misappropriating state property, organising terrorist attacks, and arresting people illegally.

Abashidze, who now lives in Moscow, has been placed on an international arrest warrant list as a result of the charges.

President Saakashvili defended his government’s volte-face by saying that circumstances had changed, "Previously, we granted Abashidze a guarantee of immunity and he left Georgian territory unharmed. However, given the grave consequences of his regime, there can be no guarantees…. The Georgian state cannot give any guarantees to anyone who has committed such serious crimes.”

Abashidze has not commented so far, but his lawyer Shalva Shavgulidze promised to appeal against the court’s decision.

"The president publicly promised Aslan Abashidze immunity, which means that either the prosecutor general's office is disregarding the president's words, or the president no longer keeps his word," said Shavgulidze.

Some view the decision to arrest Abashidze as an attempt to prevent a possible political comeback. But Levan Berdzenishvili, a member of parliament from the opposition Republican Party, thinks that Abashidze offers no threat to Tbilisi.

Instead, Berdzenishvili believes the arrest warrant is an attempt to divert the public's attention from the government’s failures since assuming power two years ago.

"The situation with Georgia’s economy is now critical,” he told IWPR. “This is the perfect time to tell people, ‘There is no money in the country because Aslan Abashidze stole it all.’”

“It was a mistake to give any guarantees at all to Aslan Abashidze,” he added, expressing a view shared by many. “However, since they gave their word, they should have kept it.”

The public mistrust of the government’s actions against Abashidze is compounded by the ongoing controversy over the fate of the ex-leader’s extensive property and possessions.

Officials value the property - which includes fashionable apartments in Batumi and Tbilisi, private houses in Ajaria, real estate, banks, banking accounts and a number of businesses - at 99 million US dollars, but unofficial reports place the amount much higher.

Immediately following Abashidze’s resignation, the authorities announced that all movable property such as art, computers, expensive cars and Hummer vehicles would be sold at auction and the proceeds would go to the state.

However, not only has no auction been held, but a large amount of the confiscated property seems to have gone missing. Many fear that officials have appropriated the items for themselves.

IWPR tried to raise these concerns with Levan Varshalomidze, Ajaria’s new governor. After numerous requests, however, a spokesperson stated that the governor “will not comment on this issue”.

IWPR was also unable to obtain information on the matter from Georgia’s Supreme Court and prosecutor's office.

Batumi mayor Murman Beridze, while likewise refusing to comment, conceded that some property may have gone astray. “There was such a mess here [in May 2003] that, for example, a Chrysler belonging to city hall disappeared,” he said.

Abashidze’s lawyers contend that the authorities violated internationally-accepted laws when they confiscated the former Ajarian leader’s possessions.

“Before 2004, the law did not require any proof of possession,” said Soso Baratashvili, Abashidze's lawyer. “However, [authorities] have now started demanding this post factum, which is a breach of international law.”

The Abashidze family were able to get a few favourite things out of the country, such as a Lamborghini sports car and the former strongman’s beloved dog Basmach. But they have been left with nothing of their once extensive real estate.

Among the homes taken by the state is an apartment which has been in the Abashidze family for generations, and long pre-dates his term as Ajarian leader.

Ironically, this is the second time the apartment has been confiscated. Abashidze’s grandfather Memed, a well-known public figure, was shot in 1937 during Stalin’s purges and his property seized.

Abashidze’s lawyers appealed to Georgia’s constitutional court, putting the case that the Georgian criminal code contradicted the constitution on the issues of inviolability of property and presumption of innocence. However, the court rejected the claim last month. In a last-ditch effort, Abashidze’s legal team has put the case to the International Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Batumi resident Koba Chkheidze was active in Ajaria’s revolution, but is outraged at the treatment of the man he helped to oust, and says he wants officials to account for the property that was seized.

“Confiscation in this form is revenge,” said Chkheidze. “[The Abashidze family] was deprived of their property in an illegal and predatory manner.”

Berdzenishvili also believes the government’s campaign against Ajaria’s former ruler is problematic from a legal point of view.

“Abashidze is a bad guy, but that doesn’t mean the law can be treated with disrespect,” he said.

Eter Turadze is editor of the Batumelebi newspaper in Batumi.
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