A conflict between Georgia’s federal government in Tbilisi and the leadership of the renegade republic of Ajaria has reached a dangerous point over the past two days. On May 2, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili demanded that Ajaria’s strongman, Aslan Abashidze, disarm his “illegal units” within ten days and restore constitutional order. If Abashidze fails to submit, Saakashvili has threatened to disband the regional government and call new elections. On May 3, Abashidze responded that it is impossible to disarm Ajaria’s residents within such a short period of time. He added that a war between the central authorities and the rebellious province appears inevitable.
The Saakashvili administration has been pressuring Abashidze ever since it came to power in Tbilisi following the “Rose Revolution” last fall. The latest example of these pressure tactics appears to have been the major military exercises that were conducted last week by the central government near the internal border between Ajaria and the rest of Georgia. Although Tbilisi reiterated that the war games had long been scheduled for the end of April, the Ajarian leadership, apparently fearing a Georgian military incursion, ordered the destruction of the three main bridges linking the republic with Georgia. The railroad tracks connecting the region with the rest of the country were also dismantled.
These moves by Abashidze, whom Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania bluntly called “paranoiac,” prompted Saakashvili’s ultimatum, which was announced immediately after a meeting of Georgia’s National Security Council. The Georgian president accused Abashidze of an attempt to provoke an armed conflict inside the country. The Ajarian leader, he said, had actually isolated the autonomous republic and brought its population to the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe, the Interfax news agency reported. However, having set out his terms for Abashidze, Saakashvili was quick to add that he hoped for a “peaceful solution” to the situation. Prime Minister Zhvania, for his part, told the RBK agency that the Georgian government would refrain from “impulsive and unpredictable actions.”
Both Russia and the United States, the two major powers with significant geopolitical interests in Georgia, called for calm from the two sides and urged a peaceful settlement of the conflict. Yet there were telling nuances in the positions of Moscow and Washington. The Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokesman has flatly stated that Moscow is concerned over the escalation in Ajaria. He has also warned Tbilisi that any use of force in the situation will have “catastrophic consequences.” The U.S. Ambassador in Georgia, Richard Miles, on the other hand, stressed that “Aslan Abashidze has to understand that at this stage it’s important to cooperate with the central authorities.” Miles said that Ajaria is an autonomous republic with its own rights, but the “region shouldn’t violate subordination,” the NEWSru.com website reported. In a separate statement, the U.S. State Department called on Abashidze to disarm the paramilitary forces in Ajaria, “as he’s previously agreed to do.”
In Batumi, Ajaria’s capital, Russia maintains a military base that the Georgian government insists must be withdrawn. So far, Russian troops have remained neutral throughout the standoff between Tbilisi and Batumi. Georgian authorities, however, have claimed that retired Russian General Yury Netkachev was personally involved in the demolition of the bridges in Ajaria. According to Georgii Ugulava, Georgia’s deputy minister of state security, Netkachev arrived in Batumi from Moscow on April 30 to direct the blowing up of the bridges. Netkachev had served as Abashidze’s military advisor and helped organize an Ajarian rapid reaction unit numbering 400 men.
Abashidze vehemently denied Netkachev’s involvement in the destruction of the bridges and said that the Russian officer had never left Moscow. But Saakashvili, speaking on May 3 to Georgian servicemen on the outskirts of Tbilisi, expressed his hope that Russia would take proper action with regard to Netkachev, who, he implied, was a terrorist. “When we discuss with Russia the measures aimed at preventing the passage of terrorists from Georgia to Russian territory, we count on the principle of reciprocity,” RIA-Novosti quoted Saakashvili as saying.
It would appear at this juncture that the Georgian government and the Ajarian leader are pursuing opposite tactics. Abashidze has clearly opted for further escalation, calculating that Tbilisi will not risk a head-on confrontation. “It’s impossible to fulfill the conditions of the [Saakashvili administration’s] ultimatum; it’s unfeasible to disarm the republic within the ten days,” Abashidze told the Izvestia newspaper on May 3. “We are waiting for the war,” he added. Speaking Tuesday night on Ajarian television, Abashidze pledged to tighten emergency rule in the region.
Saakashvili, on the other hand, appears to be relying on a dual process of steadily increasing external pressure, and internal erosion, of the Abashidze regime. Time is working for the Georgian authorities and against the Ajarian leader, Saakashvili said yesterday. Georgia’s president has also urged Abashidze’s entourage to abandon its chief in Batumi and to come to Tbilisi.