CAN SHEVARDNADZE COOPT AJARIA’S LEADER ABASHIDZE?

Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 209

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has moved toward a political arrangement with his bitter political opponent, the Ajar Autonomous Republic’s leader Aslan Abashidze. On November 3, amid the political crisis in Tbilisi, Shevardnadze traveled to Ajaria’s administrative center Batumi and offered Abashidze two posts in Tbilisi: prime minister of Georgia–a post to be created by constitutional amendment–and presidential representative in the internationally mediated negotiations with Abkhazia.

It was not until November 8 that Shevardnadze unveiled the prime ministerial offer. On November 11 on Ajar television, Abashidze said that he was ready to take on the “huge burden,” provided his appointment does not trigger a war of “kompromats against some person or movement. Otherwise, we will have to go back and start everything from scratch.” Abashidze evidently seeks guarantees of immunity for himself and his circle as a price for cooperating with Shevardnadze.

Shevardnadze was forced into this step following the collapse of the parliamentary majority, disintegration of the governing Union of Georgia’s Citizens (UGC, the chairmanship of which Shevardnadze had recently relinquished), and the looming rift between the president and young UGC politicians who criticize his dilatoriness on reform and anticorruption measures. Zurab Zhvania, who resigned as parliamentary chairman on November 1, is an informal leader of that group.

Pending a solution to interfactional differences, Shevardnadze seeks to assemble a parliamentary majority that could pass legislation, approve a new government acceptable to the president, and adopt constitutional amendments–notably, create a cabinet of ministers and the post of prime minister–without substantially reducing the presidential powers.

The Abashidze-led Union for Georgia’s Revival currently forms the single largest force in the Tbilisi parliament. Abashidze’s financial resources have in recent years enabled him to attract several small parliamentary factions into an alliance with Revival, in permanent opposition to the president and government. Shevardnadze is now attempting to coopt Abashidze into the governing camp, on terms that the president hopes to define and control.

It is a risky gamble. Abashidze’s record is that of an antireform and pro-Russian politician. He runs Ajaria as a personal and family fiefdom, unaccountable to the region’s Supreme Soviet which he chairs, openly defying Tbilisi’s legal authority, withholding taxes from the state budget, and fraternizing with the locally based Russian military, which Tbilisi wants to send home while Abashidze would prefer to retain in Batumi.

Abashidze has for almost a decade refused to set foot in Tbilisi, charging that the authorities there planned to assassinate him with Shevardnadze’s knowledge. Over the years he has spun as many as ten complicated tales of Tbilisi’s “assassination plots” against him. Abashidze’s bete noire is Zhvania, whom he has often accused as the main anti-Abashidze plotter as well as denouncing him for a purportedly half-Armenian extraction. Some regard Abashidze as emotionally unstable; others assume that there is method to that seeming madness. For his part, Shevardnadze has always reacted in conciliatory ways, periodically traveling to Batumi for fence-mending with Abashidze.

Ajaria’s leader harbors an ambition to become president of Georgia or, failing that, to play a national role in Tbilisi on his own terms. That ambition is one factor that has kept him from playing a secessionist card with Russian encouragement. Another factor is the prospect of Ajaria being included in international transit projects, of which Georgia is the linchpin country. Until now, Abashidze has never been able to rise from the stature of a local politician to that of a national figure. Shevardnadze is now offering him that chance.

The reformers in parliament will not accept Abashidze as prime minister. The president risks losing their support for good if he goes ahead with the Abashidze nomination. It seems far from certain whether the nomination can garner a parliamentary majority as part of some complex deal-making among interest groups. Short of that, as envoy for Abkhazia, it is also far from certain if Abashidze will allow himself to be coopted, or will pursue his own agenda from a post in the central government (Ajaria Television, November 3, 11; Rustavi-2 Television, Georgia Television, Tbilisi Radio, Prime-News, November 8-12).

The Monitor is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation. It is researched and written under the direction of senior analysts Jonas Bernstein, Vladimir Socor, Stephen Foye, and analysts Ilya Malyakin, Oleg Varfolomeyev and Ilias Bogatyrev. If you have any questions regarding the content of the Monitor, please contact the foundation. If you would like information on subscribing to the Monitor, or have any comments, suggestions or questions, please contact us by e-mail at [email protected], by fax at 301-562-8021, or by postal mail at The Jamestown Foundation, 4516 43rd Street NW, Washington DC 20016. Unauthorized reproduction or redistribution of the Monitor is strictly prohibited by law. Copyright (c) 1983-2002 The Jamestown Foundation Site Maintenance by Johnny Flash Productions