No Sign of Truce in Georgian Standoff

With a little help from Moscow, the leader of the Black Sea region of Ajaria continues to defy the leaders of Georgia's revolution.

No Sign of Truce in Georgian Standoff

With a little help from Moscow, the leader of the Black Sea region of Ajaria continues to defy the leaders of Georgia's revolution.

Thursday, 11 December, 2003

Georgia's new government and the province of Ajaria remained on a collision course this week after acting president Nino Burjanadze failed to persuade Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze to recognise the provisional central authority in Tbilisi and accept the upcoming presidential election.

Burjanadze met with Ajaria's leader for nearly six hours behind closed doors in the Ajarian capital Batumi on December 10, but no breakthrough was made.

"There are so many problems between the centre and the region, and they go back so many years, that one meeting is clearly not enough to settle them," Burjanadze told reporters after the meeting. "It's now the turn of Zurab Zhvania [acting head of government] to come to Batumi. If needed, I will also come back as many times as necessary."

The decision by Russia to ease visa restrictions for Ajarian residents has further enflamed the row between Tbilisi and the rebellious province.

Abashidze is now the only regional leader still refusing to recognise the new administration in Tbilisi headed by Burjanadze, Zhvania and Mikael Saakashvili - the leaders of mass rallies that forced ex-president Shevardnadze's resignation on November 23.

The Ajar leader, whose supporters had mounted small counter-demonstrations in Tbilisi in defence of Shevardnadze, has declared a state of emergency in his region and tightened its administrative border with the rest of Georgia.

He has also announced that Ajaria will boycott the early presidential ballot scheduled for January 4, which is almost certain to be won by Saakashvili.

"We went to Tbilisi to defend the Georgian constitution, constitutional order, and its legitimate president," Abashidze recently said on Russian television. "If we vote in the upcoming election, everyone will see how quickly we have shifted our allegiance.

"I was against the coup and any non-democratic tactics. How can I side with those who violated the constitution and toppled the legitimate government?"

Ajaria feels secure in its stance thanks to long-standing backing from Russia, which maintains a military base in the region. Abashidze met with high-ranking Kremlin officials last week. As a result of that trip, Moscow announced it was allowing Ajarian residents to enter Russian territory without a visa.

Georgia is the only member of the Commonwealth of Independent States whose citizens need a visa to travel to Russia. Moscow's unilateral repeal of visas for a single region within Georgia has infuriated Tbilisi. It gives the province the same visa rights as the two breakaway parts of Georgia - Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The visa row has prompted some angry language from Saakashvili, who has been far less diplomatic to Ajaria than his two main allies.

"Georgia has been publicly humiliated," Saakashvili said. "This is an unfriendly move. After January 4, Russia will see that Georgia is no longer in the Shevardnadze era. Georgia will have something to show for itself."

Saakashvili went on to threaten the Ajarian leader by warning, "Abashidze does not own Ajaria. He has no right to boycott the elections in the autonomous region. Those who seek to isolate Ajaria from Georgia will be held responsible. A vacant prison cell is already waiting."

"Abashidze can get in a car and five minutes later he will be in Turkey, leaving Georgia behind, if he so desires. But he cannot take Ajaria with him."

Constitutionally Abashidze is in a strong position. Under the constitution, he has the power to call a referendum to ask residents of the region whether its population wants to take part in the election. Since Ajarian voting patterns are overwhelmingly in Abashidze's favour, analysts are fairly unanimous in predicting the result.

"If the whole body is paralysed, and only one arm works fine, why kill that one arm?" said Abashidze, boasting of the relative order in his province. "As you will remember, when civil war broke out in Georgia 10 years ago we did the same thing - we sealed the border."

Despite the mutual threats, some analysts predict that the standoff between the centre and the region may still be resolved through bargaining. "Ajaria defied Shevardnadze constantly for years over economic matters," local political commentator David Gurgenidze told IWPR. "Now Abashidze may attempt to blackmail Tbilisi into giving his autonomous region greater economic freedom,"

A further indication that this may be true came when Richard Miles, the United States ambassador in Georgia, visited Batumi briefly on December 6. There was no official reports of what came out of his talks with Abashidze, but some unofficial sources reported that Miles had offered some kind of deal to the Ajarian leader.

Commenting on Miles' visit, Refan Kontselidze, the prosecutor general of Ajaria, told IWPR, "US embassy staff asked Abashidze to release an independent Georgian observer who has been detained since the parliamentary elections."

The observer, Giorgi Mshvenieradze, who represented the Young Lawyers' Association, was released on December 9.

"Abashidze is playing a double game, hoping to derive maximum benefits from both sides and win himself time," said Gurgenidze.

However, Abashidze is facing the first tentative signs of domestic dissent. The Ajarian leader has visited several local colleges in the past two days, urging young people to give him their backing. Analysts note that this is the first time Abashidze has sought backing from the younger generation since he came to power nearly 10 years ago.

During one of the meetings, an incident occurred that would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago - a lecturer at Batumi University called Abashidze a "dictator". Journalists, who represented only the state-sponsored media, were quickly ushered out of the room.

"It looks like our leader will soon require us to get a visa to cross the border into Georgia," said Batumi resident Nazi Beridze. "It's about time the people showed him what they're made of, and held him to account for everything."

Eteri Turadze is the editor of Batumelebi newspaper in Batumi, Ajaria.

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