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End of an Era

Ruler goes into exile as Georgian leaders assert control amid jubilant crowd scenes.
By IWPR staff

In the space of a few hours, the mood in Ajaria has shifted from dire warnings of civil war to joyful street celebrations. Yesterday’s protestors against the rule of Aslan Abashidze became the victors in what some are already calling Georgia’s second “rose revolution”.

Ajarian television showed armed soldiers mingling happily with the crowds in the capital Batumi as the night sky was lit up by a firework display. People waved the red-and-white flag of St. George adopted by Georgia’s administration which came to power in the November “rose revolution”, or simply wrapped it round themselves.

There were no reports of violence.

Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili arrived in Batumi early on May 6 to announce that Aslan Abashidze – who had ruled Ajaria since 1991 – had resigned, and that he would exercise direct rule over the province, which has the status of an autonomous republic within Georgia, until fresh elections could be held.

“Aslan has fled. Ajaria is free,” said Saakashvili.

Abashidze, once Ajaria’s undisputed boss, simply slipped away, leaving by plane for Moscow without making a public statement. His departure and apparent resignation followed several hours of talks with Russian Security Council chief Igor Ivanov, who had earlier flown in from Moscow via Tbilisi, and was clearly delivering an unambiguous message from both capitals.

Georgian prime minister Zurab Zhvania – who had arrived on May 5 to negotiate a solution with the then intransigent Ajarian leadership – appeared on local television in an open-neck shirt and leather jacket to reassure Ajarians that their autonomous status was not under threat.

Zhvania has been named by Saakashvili as head of a special commission which will effectively form an interim administration for Ajaria. A separate body led by Georgian interior minister Giorgi Baramidze will oversee disarmament of Abashidze’s paramilitary forces.

The Ajarian leader’s departure removed the immediate threat of armed conflict, which had been growing since May 2 when he ordered the destruction of road and rail links with the rest of Georgia, to avert what he suggested was a planned military intervention by the central government in Tbilisi. Saakashvili responded by giving Abashidze ten days to disarm his paramilitary militias.

The entire Ajarian government is reported to have resigned. On May 5, Georgian leaders had promised Abashidze immunity from prosecution, and the same for officials who defected

So far, only one notable figure has been arrested. General Roman Dumbadze, detained overnight, staged what amounted to a mutiny a month ago when he announced that he had placed his brigade – part of Georgia’s regular army – under the command of Abashidze rather than the Georgian defence ministry.

Russia formerly regarded Abashidze as an ally, but Ivanov’s visit - and the telephone conversation between Saakashvili and Russian president Vladimir Putin which preceded it - indicate a significant shift in Moscow’s stance.

“Putin played a positive role on resolving the situation in Ajaria,” Saakashvili told journalists in Batumi. “It’s to his credit that it all happened without violence and complications.”

Saakashvili was clearly delighted at the outcome, saying, “I don’t know whether it’s a coincidence or not, but both times Georgia has had a bloodless revolution.”

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