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Saakashvili's Ajara Success: Repeatable Elsewhere in Georgia?
Saakashvili's Ajara Success: Repeatable Elsewhere in Georgia?
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Ukraine Flare-Up Lays Bare Fears in Europe’s East
Ukraine Flare-Up Lays Bare Fears in Europe’s East
Briefing 34 / Europe & Central Asia

Saakashvili's Ajara Success: Repeatable Elsewhere in Georgia?

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.

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I. Overview

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.[fn]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.Hide Footnote

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.[fn]Constitution of Georgia, Art. 2.4, amended on 6 February 2004.Hide Footnote  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

A tank from the Ukrainian Forces is stationed outside a building in the flashpoint eastern town of Avdiivka, just north of the pro-Russian rebels' de facto capital of Donetsk, on 2 February 2017. AFP/Alexey Filippov

Ukraine Flare-Up Lays Bare Fears in Europe’s East

Renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine is quickly turning into a litmus test of Russia’s intentions in backing Ukrainian separatist rebels, and the real willingness of the West, in particular the United States, to support Kyiv. Fears over Washington’s wavering may also cause positions to harden in the protracted conflicts in Europe’s East, most immediately in Georgia. 

Renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine in the first weeks of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has laid bare fears in Europe's East about Russia’s declared intent to restore its former dominance in the region – and about whether or not the U.S. will continue to provide a counterweight to Moscow’s assertiveness.

Fighting that broke out on 29 January in eastern Ukraine, around the Kyiv government-controlled industrial town of Avdiivka and separatist-controlled railway hub of Yasynuvata, has continued for six days. Violence has also swept from this traditional hotspot across the whole Donetsk region: the Special Monitoring Mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has registered more than 7,000 ceasefire violations in the area on 1 February alone. 

Some things seem clear for now: most of the fighting is being carried out at a distance, using artillery and rockets. But neither side has crossed the front line and tried to seize territory, which could fatefully undermine the Minsk peace process. As they have done in the past, both sides seem to be testing their adversaries’ resolve. Kyiv probably hopes that the fighting will once again convince their U.S. and European backers that any reduction of support would be disastrous. Moscow is probably trying to remind Kyiv that it is not going to give up the separatist entities. As usual, however, politicians are scoring points at the price of civilian deaths and further destruction of vital infrastructure in the war zone.

The current fighting has destroyed power lines and water systems, producing a new humanitarian emergency. People in and around Avdiivka, long among the most directly affected by the conflict, are without electricity. Around 1 million people in the region have suffered from disrupted water supplies or lack of heating in temperatures that are well below freezing. More water infrastructure damage could lead to an environmental disaster if chlorine supplies were to leak. 

The two sides trade accusations on who is to blame for the new violence in the nearly three-year-old conflict, which has killed almost 10,000 people and pits Ukrainian government forces against Russian-backed separatists in a band of territory across eastern Ukraine. Rebels, and their backers in Moscow, may simply be testing how far they can go and how much Western support the Ukrainians have.

Kyiv’s positions are bound to get more entrenched if U.S. support weakens. If the U.S. were to lift sanctions on Moscow relating to its actions since 2014 in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, some in Kyiv have informally told Crisis Group that Ukraine’s only choice may be to escalate. 

An official close to the Minsk talks said, and many commentators agree, that the escalation is directly linked to shifts in the geostrategic environment since the election of President Trump in November. The local, regional and geostrategic levels at which conflicts in Europe’s east play out are all directly linked, as must be any resolution. 

Ukraine, which seeks to integrate into Euro-Atlantic political and economic institutions, was concerned about lessening support from Washington even before the new U.S. administration took office. The European Union’s reach is weakening as its own challenges grow, and Russia is seen as undermining Western unity on sanctions by multiple means, including both open and covert support to populist and nationalist parties ahead of key 2017 elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands. In late 2016, a former senior Kyiv official told Crisis Group that Ukraine feels abandoned, especially on security matters. Kyiv, for its part, could have done more to increase Ukraine’s resilience, including by addressing corruption that is chipping away support for President Petro Poroshenko’s government.

The dangers for Kyiv increase if it loses resolute Western support, and especially if the U.S. wavers or drops its backing for continued sanctions on Moscow. President Trump has hinted that a deal is possible if Moscow cooperates on the anti-terrorism front. Trump refused to rule out the dropping of the sanctions in a press conference with United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May on 27 January. The next day, the first call between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin covered opportunities for closer cooperation, and reportedly touched on the war in Ukraine with no public reference to sanctions.  U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s 2 February remarks to the Security Council stressed that the U.S. would not lift the sanctions until Crimea is returned to Ukraine. Her words need to be backed up by President Trump’s unambiguous statements and actions. Otherwise, the U.S. role will remain open to speculation, and continued uncertainty will further increase tensions.

Any more general escalation of fighting would have unpredictable political repercussions throughout Europe. Ukrainian families have borne the brunt of displacement of 3.8 million people within the country, but their capacity is overstretched. Those displaced internally today could well become the next wave of refugees pushed into Central and Western Europe. 

From the Western Balkans to Central Asia, the wider geostrategic shifts are creating insecurity and entrenching positions. Georgia is a good example. Its conflicts have been protracted: the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have defied Tbilisi’s control for over twenty years, but Moscow’s direct role reached a new level with recognition of their independence in 2008 after the Russian-Georgian war.  

Hopes rose that there could be some progress towards reconciliation in the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian disputes after the Georgian Dream party overwhelmingly won last autumn’s parliamentary election. The ruling party’s constitutional majority has provided space to advance its long-discussed plan to reach out to the Abkhaz and Ossetians and start addressing divisive issues. Meanwhile, Tbilisi is trying to cope internationally with what it sees as Russian occupation, which Moscow has shown no interest in discontinuing. 

Any steps to address local conflict legacies are welcome. Any future settlement must address longstanding grievances in mutually acceptable ways and build bridges between divided societies. But this is only possible if Georgia is securely fixed and supported within a predictable international framework that will help address its own grievances vis-à-vis Russia.

If the Ukrainian and Georgian governments feel that they cannot genuinely trust the West to protect them against Russia, they are likely to become increasingly nervous and unpredictable.  They may also be less willing to invest in reconciliation with those living in breakaway areas, whom they too often see as willing Kremlin proxies.

There is an immediate need for all international actors to prevent the present escalation in eastern Ukraine from getting out of hand and to address the growing humanitarian needs of the affected population. The primary responsibility for this lies with Russia. At the same time, however, the U.S. should join the European Union in giving their partners in the East strong reassurances of firm backing. The West must make clear that it will not compromise on their territorial integrity — nor will it hypocritically say the right things while in fact looking away, which is perhaps more plausible and scarier. With the U.S. course being far from certain, the EU’s confident and undivided support is more important than ever.

If Western backing is solid, Ukraine and Georgia – each with their different conflicts and in different ways – may have the geopolitical space to start addressing existing local divides. This is not a given and would not alone deliver a full-fledged settlement – for that, Moscow would have to change its calculations and course.  But without Western backing, Ukraine and Georgia will find themselves getting ever more deeply enmeshed in insoluble conflicts, with dire consequences for affected populations and increasing risks for security on the continent.