Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bridges Burnt for Ajarian Leader

The writing is on the wall for strongman Aslan Abashidze as Georgia’s government ramps up the pressure on Ajaria.

Tensions ran high in the Ajarian capital today as crowds rallied to protest against local leader Aslan Abashidze, who looked increasingly isolated in his defiant stand against the Georgian authorities.

Police in the Ajarian capital Batumi changed sides on May 5, joining thousands of demonstrators and vowing to defend them against Abashidze’s paramilitary forces.

In Tbilisi, Georgian Security Council head Vano Merebishvili gave Abashidze a few hours to “obey the president of Georgia and avoid bloodshed”.

Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, appeared on TV later in the day to promise Abashidze immunity from prosecution if he stepped down, or free passage out of the country. At a point where the Ajarian leader showed no signs of budging, Saakashvili was already talking about “another bloodless revolution”.

Abashidze appeared on local TV to insist that he would not resign.

After Saakashvili had a phone conversation with Russian president Vladimir Putin, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council Igor Ivanov flew to Tbilisi for talks with the Georgian leadership. He was expected in Ajaria later on May 5. Georgian prime minister Zurab Zhvania also visited Ajaria for a meeting with local interior minister Jemal Gogitidze.

In a sign that senior figures were peeling away from Abashidze, Ajaria’s deputy security minister Giorgi Ugulava told journalists that “the Security Council and Ministry of State Security of Ajaria are subordinate to the supreme commander-in-chief and the central leadership” – in other words the Georgian government, not the Ajarian leader.

Ajaria and the central government in Tbilisi have been at odds for more than a decade, and things worsened when the “rose revolution” brought a new Georgian administration to power in November last year. Abashidze’s autocratic style seemed more out of place than ever, but neither side appeared keen to provoke a confrontation that could prove bloody.

But relations deteriorated sharply on May 2, when Abashidze ordered two bridges on the main roads linking Ajaria with the rest of Georgia to be blown up, and railway tracks dismantled.

The Ajarian authorities justified the move by saying they feared an armed invasion from Georgia, which launched large-scale military exercises in the naval port of Poti, not far up the coast from Ajaria.

On May 4, police used truncheons and water cannon to break up a student street protest in Batumi.

More protests against Abashidze followed in Batumi and Kobuleti, Ajaria’s second city. Street patrols were beefed up across the region, and many demonstrators ended up in police custody.

“Humane treatment is ineffectual,” Abashidze said on local television. “We cannot allow radicalism get to a point where it fuels civil unrest and military conflict. All actions that could harm the autonomous republic must be nipped in the bud.”

The confrontation is very much a clash of wills between Abashidze, who has been the local strongman in Ajaria for more than a decade, and Georgia’s new president who is determined to stamp his control on the renegade province.

After the bridges were destroyed, President Saakashvili gave Abashidze an ultimatum, demanding that he “disarm illegal armed groups within 10 days, and stop defying law and order”. Georgia’s interior ministry released a statement saying that “the actions of Abashidze’s regime are yet another manifestation of its barbaric nature that is alien to human rights, the basic precepts of democracy and the fundamentals of Georgian statehood.”

Ajaria, the only autonomous area left in Georgia since Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away in the early Nineties, has consistently defied the central authorities and declined to share its substantial tax revenues with Tbilisi, while consistently pursuing a pro-Russian economic and political orientation.

Abashidze was unhappy with the “rose revolution” and refused to recognise Saakashvili until the January 4 presidential election. The situation came to a head in mid-March during the Georgian parliamentary election campaign, but was defused after crisis talks. A string of mediators helped avert bloodshed, but the crisis now appears to have entered a decisive phase.

Most commentators say that secession is not really an option for the Ajarians, as it was in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and that this dispute is much more about top-level politics and economics than deep-rooted grievances.

“Objectively, Ajaria does not make a good case for a separatist scenario,” said one local analyst, who asked not to be identified. “All its claims are purely subjective.”

He explained that the “subjective” factor fuelling the confrontation is the enormous shadow economy that has flourished under the patronage of Abashidze’s clan, as well as the Ajarian leader’s own political ambitions.

Ajaria is now accessible overland via a barely passable dirt track to the mountainous Samtskhe-Javakheti district. The sea route also seems to be barred. Jemal Inaishvili, in charge of the port at Poti, said Batumi has refused to admit Georgian passenger boats. On May 5 there were reports that Batumi’s port had been mined.

Abashidze bluntly told journalists to expect the worst. “We are expecting a war by any other name: a ‘special operation’ or whatever,” he said.

But speaking on May 4, he suggested he was still hoping for a compromise solution, “I have not been in touch with anyone in Tbilisi for days. It is impossible to disarm the autonomous region in 10 days, but I cannot reason with Tbilisi: it’s like talking to a brick wall.”

Abashidze has clamped down hard on his domestic opposition, who support Saakashvili. The Batumi office of the Our Ajaria movement, an opposition flagship, was ransacked last week, and more than 100 people were arrested.

Several hundred armed Abashidze loyalists continued to patrol the administrative border at Choloki. One militiaman who had been on duty for days told IWPR that they had been told to expect a Georgian invasion. “But we will not let anyone make decisions for us,” he asserted. “They have to realise that Ajaria is, first of all, our land. Our relationship with Georgia is secondary.”

The militia forces at Choloki seemed to believe that Russia would back them in the event of an armed conflict. Many of them told IWPR that the Russian military base in Batumi had placed one battalion on high alert.

The “Russian factor”, which Abashidze has for years used as leverage in his standoff with Tbilisi, is now of critical importance.

Russia has invested heavily in the Batumi port and oil terminal, the largest in Georgia, as well as in local construction projects, and Abashidze’s allies in Russia include the powerful Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov.

Saakashvili was quick to blame a retired Russian general, Yuri Netkachev, for the destruction of the bridges. According to sources in Tbilisi, Netkachev was in Ajaria during the blasts.

“Ajaria has neither the people nor the resources to do this. What Netkachev did is terrorism and, as such, merits an official reaction from Moscow,” said the Georgian president.

The turmoil has undermined Abashidze’s claim to run the most stable region of Georgia. Schools and colleges are shut, trade is disrupted and the public is anxious about what will happen next.

As support for Abashidze has begun to slip away, the opposition has grown increasingly emboldened.

In Batumi, groups dubbed “Disobedience Committees” – consisting mainly of university students and professors – have urged Abashidze and local officials to resign and make way for fresh elections.

As well as police in the capital, even the local symphony orchestra has switched allegiances. More than 100 of the musicians of the Batumi Capella – which Abashidze funded as an international cultural showcase – have joined the demonstrators.

“Politically, it has taken Ajaria just a few months to achieve what the rest of the country took years to accomplish,” political commentator David Berdzenishvili, who heads the anti-Abashidze Republican Party, told IWPR. “As recently as last summer, legal protests were unthinkable, and the only political group on the scene was Abashidze’s Democratic Revival Union. Now we have organised opposition that is publicly voicing its claims and rallying crowds of supporters.”

With both sides implacable, the prospect that a peaceful revolution will run its course looks uncertain. It seems highly unlikely that the Georgian leadership will countenance a compromise that allows Abashidze to remain in place, and at the time this report was published, he showed no sign of relinquishing power voluntarily.

Eteri Turadze is editor of Batumelebi newspaper in Batumi. Margarita Akhvlediani is IWPR’s South Caucasus Editor in Tbilisi

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