The “Hand of Tbilisi” will be a greater presence in post-Abashidze Ajaria. On May 18, the Georgian Parliament overwhelmingly (117/5) voted for a resolution, which allows for a one-month public discussion on a bill concerning Ajarian autonomy. A special commission is expected to analyze what emanates from the public discussion and present a conclusion to Parliament. Voting in Parliament on the bill is expected on June 18, two days before pre-term parliamentary elections in Ajaria.
The bill initiated by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili reaffirms that Ajaria is an autonomous unit of Georgia. But the bill prohibits Ajaria creating government posts that run counter to the Georgian Constitution. During Aslan Abashidze’s rule, one post was “Leader of the Ajarian Autonomous Republic,” giving Abashidze power almost equal to that of president. The Ajarian parliament, which was disbanded by Georgian legislature following the revolution, abolished this post at its last session. Recreation of the Ajarian ministry of security also was ruled out. On May 18, Parliament abolished the ministry.
The new bill establishes the Ajarian Supreme Council (legislature), elected for a term of four years as the highest body in the region. The Executive Council will incorporate ministers and heads of local administrations. The bill allows Ajaria to have the ministries of public order, economics, finance, health care and social security as well as education, culture and sport, agriculture and environment protection. In contrast to what existed under Abashidze’s rule, Tbilisi will approve leaders of the Ajarian top executive bodies. Ajaria, though, retains certain financial and fiscal autonomy to manage local finances (Dilis Gazeti, Resonance, May 19, Mtavari Gazeti May 20).
What is noteworthy is that the bill authorizes the president of Georgia to abolish both the Ajarian parliament and executive council, should their activities pose a threat to constitutional order, the country’s territorial integrity, and if the executive council fails three times to confirm the president’s nominated chair of the council. Some analysts believe that the bill leaves little in place in terms of real autonomy for Ajaria and deprives the regional government of any basic authority. Legal expert David Usupashvili believes that the bill only vaguely demarcates the power between the center and the region. (Mtavari Gazeti May 20, Resonance, Week’s Palette May 18).
Part of the Ajarian establishment is opposed to the bill. Professor Otari Zoidze of the Republican Party believes that the bill minimizes Ajaria’s autonomy and that the local political establishment is embarrassed by this situation. “This means that Tbilisi distrusts Ajarians,” he said. Zoidze also doubts the possibility of fair elections in Ajaria in such a short period of time. (Resonance, May 18).
Date of the elections is a subject of argument. Opposition parties want the government to postpone elections at least until September. They indicate that serious flaws in the Ajarian election system, unsolved technical problems concerning the election and “revolutionary euphoria” in the region mitigate against possibility of fair elections. But the ruling party, which evidently follows the axiom “strike while the iron is hot” is deaf to opposition pleas. “We have to conduct elections in Ajaria as soon as possible. This is demand of the electorate. Everybody knows that the National-Democrats will win,” said Giga Bokeria, an influential MP from the ruling party’s parliamentary group. (Resonance May 18).
Another challenge is that Abashidze’s ouster has rekindled talks about abolition of the autonomous status of Ajaria. The New Rightists-Industrialists — the opposition party in Parliament and other MPs have proposed the idea of conducting a plebiscite concerning regional autonomy. The Ajarian population must be given the right to decide on the autonomy issue, they argue.
“The autonomy of Ajaria is a remnant of historical injustice and now Georgian government has a chance to correct it,” said a statement issued by the party. The party offered to establish strong self-government in Ajaria. Debates over Ajarian autonomy have their genesis in the early 1990s, when the first president of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, raised the issue. In 1997, the idea of abolition of Ajarian autonomy was aired in the Georgian parliament, although there was no strong support. The attitudes of the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition with regard to the status of Ajaria are almost similar. Both call for autonomous units, designed to protect the cultures and traditions of ethnic minorities, while Ajarians are ethnic Georgians.
Both factions consider the abolishment of the autonomy as necessary to prevent the re-appearance of Abashidze-like authoritarian regional leaders. Some analysts, however, warn that establishing a plebiscite precedent for abolition of Ajaria’s autonomy is fraught with undesirable consequences, because other Georgian regions densely populated by non-Georgian ethnic minorities might demand a similar plebiscite or referendum to establish autonomy and a centralized government. Establishment of a precedent could guarantee that such demands could not be rejected.
The ruling party considers abolition of the Ajarian autonomy as premature. The ruling party believes that this step would hinder the settlement of conflicts in Abkhazia and ex-South Ossetia; complicate relations with Russia, Turkey and international organizations; and ignite undesirable sentiment that runs counter to national unity.