Georgia's woes are far from over
Georgia's woes are far from over
Fenced In: Stabilising the Georgia-South Ossetia Separation Line
Fenced In: Stabilising the Georgia-South Ossetia Separation Line
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 4 minutes

Georgia's woes are far from over

Last year's 'Rose Revolution' marked the end of an era for the troubled Caucasus state. But a history of internal strife and the shadow of civil war are not cast off so easily, writes Giorgi Gogia of the International Crisis Group.

Last week Georgia lurched to the brink of civil war, less than two months after Mikhail Saakashvili was sworn in as the country's new president.

A five-day-long crisis between central powers in the capital Tbilisi and autonomous republic of Ajara was only partially defused on 18 March, when Saakashvili and Aslan Abashidze, the President of the Ajara, held talks in Batumi.

But Saakashvili's intention to control the region combined with Abashidze's determination to maintain power make the temporary stability extremely fragile.

Ajara, a small region in the southwest of Georgia, is governed like a medieval fiefdom by Abashidze and his extended family, who control the port of Batumi and benefit from trade - legal and otherwise - with Turkey.

Although there is no ethnic confrontation in Ajara, there is a history of tense relations between Tbilisi and Batumi, which came to the fore after the 'Rose Revolution,' which overturned the old order in Georgia last November.

Since taking office in January, President Saakashvili has seen Ajara as his biggest challenge, not hiding his irritation when it is mentioned as a potential third secessionist region for Georgia, along with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

With parliamentary elections set for 28 March, pro-Saakashvili political forces and civil movements have been increasingly, and visibly, active within Ajara.

Two opposition parties, 'Democratic Ajara' and 'Our Ajara,' together with the Kmara ('Enough') movement have been running a strong anti-Abashidze campaign in the region. Posters and graffiti with slogans such as 'Aslan, Leave!' and 'Ajara without Abashidze!' have appeared throughout the province.

The situation threatened to spin out of control when, On 20 February, just as Council of Europe General Secretary Walter Schwimmer was visiting Batumi, opposition demonstrators and Abashidze supporters clashed, leaving dozens injured. Two Kmara activists were detained in Ajara on charges of organising public disorder.

Tbilisi responded by arresting two Ajarian students. On 5 March, a well-known Georgian TV journalist, Vakhtang Komakhidze, was severely beaten in Ajara by people associated with the regional ministry of security. Saakashvili demanded the arrest of those guilty for the attack.

By 12 March, Abashidze was openly accusing Tbilisi of trying to export the 'Rose Revolution' to Ajara, and he has made frequent trips to Moscow requesting Russian support. The presence of a Russian military base in Batumi has further increased the risk of armed clashes, as those troops could be drawn into any conflict between the centre and the region.

While Moscow would not welcome such a development, the Russian military has never hidden its gratitude for Abashidze's support for the base.

Megaphone diplomacy between Abashidze and Tbilisi turned into open crisis on 14 March, when local police and paramilitaries barred Saakashvili and his entourage from entering Ajara. The threat of military confrontation became real as both sides reiterated their readiness to resort to force if necessary. Georgian troops were put on high alert, and about a thousand well-armed special forces and paramilitaries gathered on the Ajarian side of the administrative border. There was also a heavy military presence in Batumi, and armed men in civilian clothes roamed the streets. An 'Anti-Crisis Centre' was created, headed by Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and located in the neighbouring port city of Poti.

Saakashvili gave an ultimatum, demanding free movement in Ajara for himself and members of the Georgian government. He also insisted that the Ajarian authorities permit freedom of expression in the run-up to the 28 March parliamentary elections; that they ensure a free and fair vote; disarm illegal armed groups and cede to Tbilisi control over customs, borders, finances, and the port of Batumi. He then imposed economic sanctions against Ajara when the demands were not met.

In emergency negotiations on 18 March it was agreed that Abashidze would allow free and fair elections in Ajara and disarm paramilitary groups in exchange for Saakashvili lifting the economic embargo. Abashidze also agreed to Tbilisi installing representatives at the Batumi port, who will be able to monitor Abashidze's trade-related revenues.

However, the crisis is far from over. Abashidze and Saakashvili have continued their mutual accusations and ultimatums. On 21 March, Abashidze demanded that his representatives be installed in the competing port of Poti, which is controlled by Tbilisi, to ensure cargo flows are not redirected to avoid Batumi. He has also insisted that all criminal cases initiated against senior Ajarian officials be dropped. Saakashvili responded with a counter-ultimatum that he would renew the blockade in two days if his representatives were not allowed to start working in Batumi.

If Tbilisi actively encourages the idea of revolutionary change against the Ajarian authorities in the 28 March elections, the reaction from Batumi could be fierce, and the situation could deteriorate rapidly.

Although Prime Minister Zhvania has said that the Georgian government does not intend to decide who the leader in Ajara will be, Abashidze is sure that if his party loses the parliamentary vote, there will be renewed attempts to replace him.

Some suspect the crisis will be solved by finding a way to ease out Abashidze, having him leave Ajara and Georgia peacefully with a tidy sum for his troubles. But even Abashidze's removal would not solve the problem. the roots of the Tbilisi-Batumi crisis run deeper than just one or two personalities. It is a constitutional problem that requires a constitutional solution.

The Georgian constitution, adopted in 1995 and amended last month, does not define relations between the central government and the regions. A working group made up of representatives from both sides needs to be created in order to define the division of responsibilities between the capital and the autonomous republic. Arguing these arrangements out across a table is a much better option than muscle-flexing, and if successful, could serve as a good example to Georgia's other breakaway regions.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.