Saakashvili’s New Year’s Headache in Ajaria
Saakashvili’s New Year’s Headache in Ajaria
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Saakashvili’s New Year’s Headache in Ajaria

A regional authoritarian could prove to be the new president’s first major challenge.

With over 96 percent support in Georgia’s 4 January presidential election, president-elect Mikheil Saakashvili has good reason to give a festive welcome to the new year. But as the celebrations fade, the hangover of the country’s grim situation looms large: Georgia is confronting the possibility of total economic collapse and further territorial disintegration.

Among the many headaches Saakashvili now faces--constitutional, political, and economic--none is so pressing as the situation in the small autonomous region of Ajaria in southwest Georgia. With a majority Georgian, though Muslim, population, Ajaria is relatively free of the ethnic tensions simmering in other breakaway regions of Georgia, namely Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, the determination of Ajaria’s leader, Aslan Abashidze, to maintain his authoritarian rule--despite the revolution in Tbilisi--places Ajaria at the top of Saakashvili’s list of priorities.

Abashidze and his extended family govern Ajaria like a medieval fiefdom and benefit significantly from their control of the illegal border trade with Turkey. Although still officially committed to Ajaria’s existence within a unified Georgian state, Abashidze has explicitly stated his readiness to use military force if Tbilisi tries to enforce its authority within the republic. Nervous about any spread of the “Rose Revolution” into Ajaria, Abashidze has re-imposed a state of emergency in the region and detained several opposition activists from the Kmara (“Enough”) movement.

The revolution’s threat to Abashidze and his fiefdom is real. Kmara posters with slogans such as “Enough of Abashidze’s Dictatorship!” and “Enough! Because I Love Georgia” are appearing throughout Ajaria. More important, Kmara took an active part in the protest rallies in Tbilisi last November that led to former President Eduard Shevardnadze’s resignation.

The opposition arrests themselves could be the spark that brings Tbilisi and Ajaria to an explosive confrontation. The central authorities’ initial silence on the illegal arrests prompted Abashidze to make a bold statement about Tbilisi’s awareness of the detentions--a claim the acting president, Nino Burjanadze, swiftly denied.

Of course, such public relations games with political prisoners in Ajaria is nothing new: Abashidze kept the former mayor of the Ajarian capital of Batumi, Tengiz Asanidze, imprisoned for years despite Shevardnadze’s official pardon. However, the media noise in Tbilisi focusing on the Ajarian authorities’ crackdown on the opposition may have some effect. That noise may grow loud enough to pressure the Georgian Supreme Court or Procurator General into denouncing the arrests as illegal, thus bringing the conflict between Tbilisi and Ajaria to a head through their respective judicial systems.

Apart from Kmara and the courts, other cracks have started to appear in Abashidze’s authoritarian regime. There is an open rivalry between the Abashidze clan and the Gogitidze clan, the family of Abashidze’s late wife Maguli Gogitidze-Abashidze. After Maguli’s death last summer, the schism has become particularly evident, highlighted by a recent shooting incident between Abashidze’s 27-year-old son Giorgi (who is the elected mayor of Batumi) and the Ajarian interior minister, Jemal Gogitidze.

Although Abashidze tries to keep tight control over information in the region--immediately after the November events in Tbilisi, he banned the pro-Saakashvili TV station Rustavi 2 from transmitting on Ajarian territory--events suggest that public discontent in Ajaria is growing. Among other things, various student and civil society groups have recently been established.

The delicate situation in Ajaria is particularly explosive given the existence of a Russian military base in Batumi. Shortly after the “Rose Revolution,” Abashidze traveled to Moscow, where he met with the leaders of Georgia’s other separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow’s unilateral decision on 9 December to ease the visa regime with Ajaria has further complicated the situation, giving Ajaria the same visa rights as the other two regions, which have both repeatedly expressed their aspiration to join the Russian Federation.

The conflict of interest between Tbilisi and Batumi is not just a post-revolutionary phenomenon. Tensions over budgetary transfers have a long tradition: Abashidze has often been accused of refusing to share tax receipts with the center. In fact, he has managed to turn the autonomous republic into a giant duty-free territory and has been trying, in vain, to legitimize that situation by lobbying the Georgian parliament for an Ajarian “free economic zone.”

Of course, Abashidze and Shevardnadze always managed to find mutually beneficial agreements. Despite Abashidze’s initial denouncement of the new authorities, some believe his negotiations with the interim leadership, particularly with State Minister Zurab Zhvania, signal that some kind of compromise is still possible.

Saakashvili’s new year’s headache in Ajaria will require more than fresh air and a few aspirins to clear up. The new Georgian president clearly has a potentially explosive situation on his hands, and he will need to tread carefully. Saakashvili should refrain from inflammatory rhetoric that could provoke Abashidze and instead try to use the latter’s aspirations to create a free economic zone as a bargaining chip for more civil liberties. Greater political freedom could eventually lead to a peaceful change of power in the autonomous republic--a far better scenario than a military option.

Giorgi Gogia and Damien Helly are analysts in Georgia for the International Crisis Group, an independent, multinational, nonprofit organization that works through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve conflicts around the world.

Contributors

Former Analyst, Caucasus
Former Project Director, Caucasus

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

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