Georgia's looming conflict can be avoided
Georgia's looming conflict can be avoided
Fenced In: Stabilising the Georgia-South Ossetia Separation Line
Fenced In: Stabilising the Georgia-South Ossetia Separation Line
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 2 minutes

Georgia's looming conflict can be avoided

Georgia Tensions in Georgia's renegade province of Ajara are coming to a frightening head this week. The central government in Tbilisi and the regime in Batumi, Ajara's capital, are actively preparing for war, but they would be wise to grab the last chance for peace now offered by the Council of Europe.

The last few days have seen a dramatic and disturbing increase in tensions between the two sides and escalating rhetoric and threats from Aslan Abashidze, the president of the Ajara Autonomous Republic, and Mikhail Saakashvili, who was sworn in as Georgia's new president late in January.

Abashidze and his extended family rule the small region in the southwest of Georgia like a medieval fiefdom, benefiting from illegal trade with Turkey and from controlling the port of Batumi. There is a tradition of tense relations between Tbilisi and Batumi, with the underlying problem being the constitutional split of powers - and indeed revenues - between them. The tensions became particularly obvious after Saakashvili's "Rose Revolution" overturned the old order in Georgia last November.

Saakashvili sees Ajara - rather than Georgia's awful economic condition - as his biggest problem. It is the very embodiment of the weak central government he inherited, which also faces challenges from other secessionist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Pro-Saakashvili political forces and civil movements have been increasingly, and visibly, active within Ajara.

Tensions temporarily subsided after direct negotiations between Saakashvili and Abashidze on March 18 resulted in Abashidze agreeing to disarm paramilitary groups and allow free and fair elections in Ajara in exchange for Saakashvili's lifting of an economic embargo against Ajara. But that disarmament never happened, and with the March 28 parliamentary elections now well behind them, both sides have dropped all pretense of peaceful coexistence.

This week, Georgian troops, some trained by American forces in Georgia, are mobilizing for "exercises" in the Black Sea port of Poti, just along the coast from Ajara. Meanwhile in Ajara a state of emergency was declared last weekend, and a general mobilization of the region's armed forces, some of whom have been trained by Russian General Netkachev, was announced on Tuesday.

Pro-Saakashvili demonstrations have been organized in Batumi this week, which could well provoke a vigorous response from pro-Abashidze security forces aiming to maintain the Ajarian state of emergency, which Tbilisi says is illegal. Violence in Batumi may be just the excuse Tbilisi is looking for to move its "exercises" south.

There is a nonviolent alternative, however, and the two sides can still pull back from the brink, even at this late hour. The Council of Europe, specifically the Venice Commission, is standing by to help the two sides resolve the problems peacefully by agreeing mutually acceptable constitutional provisions.

International actors must pressure two sides, especially the Georgian leadership, which seems to be escalating the risk of conflict this time around, to go for this peaceful resolution.

A military solution would help no one, except perhaps those who wish to see Georgia destabilized. Abashidze's democratic credentials may be questionable, but he has made Ajara the most economically successful region of Georgia and enjoys some support from the local population. His mandate as leader of Ajara will naturally terminate soon in any case; Ajarian elections are planned for 2005.

It would be much better for Saakashvili to broker a peaceful compromise and transition to democracy than to overthrow Abashidze and install a new government, which would not resolve the underlying constitutional problem anyway. The Council of Europe is the way out.

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