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Saakashvili Sweeps Ajaria Poll

The Georgian president has completed his takeover of the former dissident republic of Ajaria – but opened up a split in the ruling regime.
By Eteri Turadze

The party of Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili has won a crushing victory in pre-term parliamentary elections in Ajaria, cementing his position in the autonomous republic after his ouster last month of veteran pro-Moscow leader Aslan Abashidze.

The president’s party, Saakashvili–Victorious Ajaria, was awarded 77 per cent of the vote on June 20. Only one of the 17 other parties competing on the ballot, Berdzenishvili–Republican Party, cleared the seven per cent hurdle required to win seats in parliament, collecting 9.9 per cent of the vote.

As a result, 28 of the 30 seats in the Supreme Council – Ajaria’s parliament – will be held by Saakashvili’s party, with the remaining two going to the Republicans.

However, despite winning two seats, the Republicans chose this point to break loudly and publicly with Saakashvili, their erstwhile ally. Republican leaders called what had happened “electoral banditry” and alleged widespread vote-rigging.

David Berdzenishvili, leader of the Republican Party, announced on June 21 that his party was now going into opposition to Saakashvili in the Georgian parliament.

Another Republican leader, Otar Zoidze, said that, “in these elections the vote-rigging techniques of ex-president Eduard Shevardnadze and ex-leader Aslan Abashidze have merged”.

Irakli Chkhetia, the chairman of one of the electoral commissions in Ajaria, said that activists from Saakashvili’s National Movement had directly asked him to rig the vote in their favour, “They told me that they had already noticed support for Berdzenishvili and no one would forgive that. And there were cases like that in a lot of electoral commissions.”

Saakashvili scornfully rejected the charges. At a meeting with the Ajarian public he said that, “Yesterday I saw statements where people said that nothing had changed in Ajaria. If you close your eyes and look in the mirror then you won’t see your own nose.”

He put the complaints down to jealous and defeated politicians, saying, “we can’t please everybody. There are not enough jobs for everyone.”

Local non-governmental organisations generally gave a positive verdict on the conduct of the elections, as did a small monitoring mission sent by the Council of Europe. In a statement on June 22, the monitors said that the elections had been better than under Abashidze and were “an important step towards regional democracy” but that Ajaria still lacked a “legal base” to function efficiently.

The sheer scale of Saakashvili’s victory has raised worries among some ordinary people in Ajaria. The president’s slogan “All the best for Ajarians”, which he declared after the removal of Abashidze, initially raised his popularity sky high. But the euphoria fell away after officials from Tbilisi were appointed to leading posts in Ajaria and there was uncertainty about the fate of Abashidze’s property, worth millions of dollars.

A group of Batumi students held a rally to raise the issue. “Possessions worth several millions and up to 150 expensive cars have been removed,” said theological student Levan Turmanidze. “We demand that the law be observed, otherwise we will stage much bigger protests.”

There is also concern about the number of arrests of people associated with the former administration. Ajaria’s interior minister David Glonti said that more than 100 people had been detained in the last month and a half. However, many more people may actually be behind bars. Akaki Tsintsadze, head of Ajaria’s security department admitted to IWPR that “some of the people detained are collaborating with the law enforcement authorities, so information about them is not being made public”.

The arrests follow a pattern already set in Tbilisi since Saakashvili was elected in January. Television cameras record the detention of people accused in scandalous fashion of corruption or other crimes, without any proof being shown of their guilt.

Elene Tevdoradze, a human rights activist who played an active part in Georgia’s “Rose Revolution”, said two prisoners have asked for her help. “I visited former deputy security minister Gogi Kupreishvili, who has already tried to kill himself twice in detention. And the second person is a student named Lasha Chakhvadze, whom I also believe to be a victim of the political fight.

“There were a lot of procedural mistakes in these arrests and I am ready to do everything I can so that those arrested get out of jail.”

The day after polling day, 14 people who had accompanied the daughter of former leader Aslan Abashidze, Diana, to Batumi were arrested. They said that they had come to visit the grave of Abashidze’s wife and that the police had planted weapons on them.

Ajaria is now entering a period of uncertainty in which its exact legal status as an autonomous republic has yet to be determined.

Legal experts from the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe are still studying a draft law on the autonomous status of Ajaria, which may change radically. As a result the current one-chamber parliament could for example become a two-chamber legislature.

This has led many to declare the elections premature. The leader of the New Rights party David Gamkrelidze, announcing a boycott of the elections, said, “the elections for the new leadership of Ajaria should have been held in September, and in the time until then we should have considered the issue of its autonomous status in Georgia and held an election campaign which was honest for all.”

The decisive factor has obviously been Saakashvili’s drive and refusal to compromise. His victory in the polls obviously owed a great deal to his personal authority.

“I very much like his strength and honesty,” said one Batumi resident, Levan Kalandadze. “He is really not corrupt and he is sure that he can really re-unite our country.”

Others are not convinced. “The king is dead, long live the king!” said one student protestor. And on some houses in Batumi you can even see the slogan, “Aslan come back!”

Eteri Turadze is editor of Batumelebi newspaper in Batumi.

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