Saakashvili's Ajara Success: Repeatable Elsewhere in Georgia?
Europe Briefing N°34
18 Aug 2004
Mikhail Saakashvili passed an early test of his new presidency when through a skilful mix of threatened force and imaginative diplomacy he manoeuvred Aslan Abashidze into peacefully ending his thirteen-year control of Ajara in May 2004. But that success, after two months when Georgia appeared on the verge of either a new civil war or a further dissolution of its territorial integrity, was very much a product of the particular circumstances of the Ajara case and will not be easily repeatable in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The strict limits imposed on Ajara's constitutional autonomy after Abashidze fled to Moscow are unlikely to make compromise offers of the kind that won community support in Ajara look attractive to the two regions that began asserting their independence as the Soviet Union collapsed. Political conditions in Ajara differ significantly from Abkhazia (Sukhumi) and South Ossetia (Tshkhinvali). The region never sought independence based on national self-determination, and its people are ethnic Georgians, unlike the Ossetians and Abkhaz. Russia played an ambiguous but apparently not unhelpful role in the peaceful resolution of the May crisis. With Moscow's perceived security interests much more deeply engaged in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, however, Tbilisi's new round of brinksmanship is putting it in direct confrontation with its giant northern neighbour.
Since Abashidze's departure, Ajara has been firmly re-integrated into Georgia's fold. Elections to its Supreme Council were held on 20 June, and a constitutional law on the Status of the Autonomous Republic enacted two weeks later. President Saakashvili stood by his pledge to allow Ajara to retain an autonomous status. However the speed and lack of transparency of the changes, as well as the law's substance, put into question the degree to which Ajara will really control its own affairs.
The Ajara case provides an important first example of how Saakashvili's government plans to remould Georgia's internal state structures, including local government. It is committed to greater decentralisation and giving local self-government an elected character. With Ajara's autonomy so tightly curtailed, however, the likelihood that there will be significant decentralisation of decision-making seems in doubt.
Abashidze's departure left a power vacuum in Ajara. The former regime ruled through a tight-knit system of patronage networks, within which one's position was dependant on the expression of full loyalty to the leader and his family. President Saakashvili retains a high level of trust and confidence but reform and establishment of a merit-based system is needed at all levels of the public service. The appointment of persons from Tbilisi to high-level positions in Batumi has caused some resentment among the local population. The old strongman may eventually attempt to rehabilitate himself by exploiting these growing feelings of grievance.
Tbilisi/Brussels, 18 August 2004
 For general background on the situation in Georgia, see ICG Europe Report N°151, Georgia: What Now?, 3 December 2003. Forthcoming ICG reporting will address the South Ossetia and Abkhazia conflicts in detail.
 Constitution of Georgia, Art. 2.4, amended on 6 February 2004.