In the early hours on May 6, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili announced that Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze had fled the region and that the central government had restored control over the renegade republic. A long and potentially violent stand-off between the Saakashvili administration and Ajaria’s rebellious strongman has ended.
The way the denouement came and the circumstances that surrounded it strongly resemble the Rose Revolution that led to the ouster from power of former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze last November. As was the case with Shevardnadze’s regime, Abashidze’s feudal style rule proved to be impotent when confronted with a mass popular protest movement.
Significantly, in both cases the rulers were denied external support from Moscow at the moment they needed it most. In November of last year Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy, Igor Ivanov, who was at that time serving as foreign minister, came to Tbilisi only to broker Shevardnadze’s resignation – not to help him stay in power. On May 5 the same Ivanov, now Russia’s Security Council secretary, arrived in Batumi as Putin’s envoy with the sole purpose of taking Abashidze back to Moscow a few hours later. And this action came despite two strongly worded statements issued over the preceding several days by the Russian Foreign Ministry in which Moscow implicitly accused the Georgian central government escalating the crisis in Ajaria.
This clear and inglorious defeat of Abashidze, the Kremlin’s long time ally in a fractious and weak Georgia (much like the similar downfall of Shevardnadze, whom the Kremlin utterly disliked but preferred as a lesser evil to the pro-Western Saakashvili), raises an important question about Russia’s real influence in the South Caucasus.
The official Russian position is that Abashidze took a “wise and brave decision” to exit the scene and fly to Moscow “to avoid bloodshed” when thousands of protesters in Batumi defied the curfew and emergency rule. This is what a well informed source in Russia’s Security Council told the RIA-Novosti agency on May 6. The same interpretation of Abashidze’s motives was given by the chairman of the Russian State Duma committee for CIS affairs, Andrei Kokoshin, in an interview with the Interfax agency.
Symptomatically, the pro-Kremlin commentators have tried to play up the fact that the Ajarian crisis – like the confrontation last year between the Saakashvili supporters and Shevardnadze – was settled mainly due to Russian mediation. “This means that Moscow’s influence in the former Soviet republic is still strong,” said a commentary posted on the SMI.ru website.
The Georgian government, seeking to maintain good relations with Russia during this volatile period, appears especially keen to send Moscow a signal that it values its services. “I think President Putin has played a very constructive role” in resolving the crisis in Ajaria, Saakashvili said early yesterday morning. Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili, who, ironically, arrived in Moscow on an official visit the very day Abashidze was toppled, told her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that her visit should be seen “as a step Tbilisi is making toward rapprochement with Moscow.” Yet praising Russia’s role in the settlement of the conflict in Ajaria didn’t prevent Georgia’s top diplomat from raising the thorny issue of Russian military bases in Georgia. “Georgia does not need these bases” on its territory, Zourabichvili stated flatly during a news conference at Itar-Tass.
Analysts who are less beholden to the Putin administration have tended to see the outcome of the Ajarian crisis critically. “The conflict between Georgia and Ajaria ended with Moscow getting the former head of the autonomous republic and his family and Washington gaining additional opportunities to strengthen its control over the region,” argued one commentator writing for the Utro.ru website. Abashidze’s downfall and Saakashvili’s victory, he continued, will result in the rise of American prestige and influence in a “territory that for the last two hundred years belonged to Russia.”
A slow but steady redistribution of power and influence is taking place in the South Caucasus, a number of Moscow analysts believe. A weakened Russia is losing its positions while the United States is gaining ground, they say. Indeed, to believe that the post-Soviet space is still under Russia’s sole influence is to make a grave strategic mistake, the regional expert Vitaly Portnikov argues. The latest events in Batumi have clearly demonstrated that Moscow has ceased to be the main center of power in post-Soviet Eurasia, Portnikov wrote in a commentary posted on the Politcom.ru website. Significantly, it was not lost on Russian media outlets covering the events in Ajaria that the crowds in the streets of Batumi were waving not only Georgian but also American flags.