GEORGIA: A CONFLICT MAY BE BREWING BETWEEN TBILISI AND AJARIA, SEEN UNTIL NOW AS GEORGIA’S MOST PEACEFUL REGION

Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 19

Georgia: A conflict may be brewing between Tbilisi and Ajaria, seen until now as Georgia’s most peaceful region

By Zaal Anjaparidze

There are signs that a conflict may be brewing between Tbilisi and the political elite in the autonomous Republic of Ajaria, regarded until now as Georgia’s most peaceful region.

Sandwiched between the rest of Georgia to the north and Turkey to the south, Ajaria occupies a strategically vital strip of lush Black Sea coastline. The region has been under Georgian jurisdiction since 1878. The Ajars, who make up the majority of the population of the region, are regarded as ethnic Georgians but profess Islam as a result of strong Turkish influence during centuries of Ottoman rule.

During the turmoil that racked Georgia in 1991-94, Ajaria remained the most stable and crime-free region in the country. That was largely due to the efforts of Aslan Abashidze, chairman of Ajaria’s Supreme Council, or parliament. Abashidze was appointed to that post in 1990 by former Georgian president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. In 1995, he ran for election to the same post and won. In an effort to preserve the region’s stability and bolster his own position, Abashidze has cultivated close contacts with Russian leaders relying, in particular, on the support of Russian military units based in Ajaria.

The government of President Eduard Shevardnadze has given Ajaria’s strong-minded leader more or less free rein to manage the region’s affairs. Tbilisi’s decision not to interfere was doubtless taken with the lessons of the conflict in Abkhazia in mind. So far, it has warded off friction between Tbilisi and Batumi. Conflict could, however, be provoked by the ambiguous formulations in Georgia’s 1995 constitution, which is ambiguous on the issue of whether or not Georgia is a federal state. Article 1 describes Georgia as a unitary, indivisible state. But the constitution goes on to say that Georgia’s territorial structure will be determined by a constitutional law, based on power-sharing principles, which will come into force once Georgian jurisdiction has been restored over the whole of the country’s territory.

The constitution states that issues of local importance should be decided at the regional level. At the same time, the heads of various regional territorial units and municipal mayors — the mayor of Batumi included — are appointed by the center, not elected by the population. Article 108 of the constitution states that, until Georgia’s jurisdiction over its whole territory is fully restored, parliament may amend the constitution without the preliminary public discussion called for by Article 102. Controversial provisions such as these make Georgia’s regional elites wary about the possible actions of the central authorities. Ajaria, which enjoys the status of an autonomous republic, is particularly sensitive on this score, as are Abkhazia and Tskhinvali (the former South Ossetia).

Ajaria is no backwater. The Citizens’ Union of Georgia (CUG), which is led by Shevardnadze, is by far the most powerful party in the country, but the Ajaria-based All-Georgian Revival Union (UGR), which Abashidze leads, came third in the November 1995 parliamentary elections, whereupon its "Revival" faction formed a parliamentary coalition with the CUG’s "Citizen" faction. Cooperation with the CUG did not live up the UGR’s aspirations, however. The UGR was particularly disappointed by Parliament’s rejection of a bill that would have allowed the establishment of a free economic zone in Batumi.

Abashidze reacted angrily, accusing the central government of going back on its word. He went on to accuse Tbilisi of seeking to destabilize the situation in Ajaria. In early June, Ajaria’s Supreme Council sharply criticized the work of the "Revival" faction and rebuked its leading members for inactivity. This was the first hint that a split might be in the offing not only between the UGR and CUG, but also within the Ajarian elite. "Revival" announced that it was leaving the coalition with the CUG. It has since tried to form an alliance with the "Laborist" and "Popular" factions, both of which are critical of the CUG’s policies. Together, the three parliamentary factions have mounted increasing opposition to the policies of the CUG in general and to Shevardnadze in particular, and have begun to look like a serious potential counterweight to the CUG majority. They have contributed to the defeat of several CUG-initiated legislative proposals. Moreover, Abashidze has started to make statements casting doubt on Georgia’s territorial integrity and hinting in the most veiled of terms that Ajaria might consider secession.

On August 6, nine Ajarian members of the Georgian parliament announced that they were leaving the "Revival" faction. In a formal statement, the defectors said they were quitting because of "ideological divergence" and "violation of democratic principles" within the faction. They complained that the faction had deviated from the principles put forward in its election program, of support for reforms and Shevardnadze’s line. Official Batumi took immediate disciplinary measures against the defectors. As a result, two parliamentarians — Jemal Megrelidze and Guram Turalidze — returned to the fold. But the remaining seven refused to follow them. In September, these seven joined three other parliamentarians to form a new faction called "Mamuli" (Homeland). This has since formed a parliamentary coalition with the CUG and declared its opposition to Abashidze and his policies.

The reasons given by the defectors for their decision to leave the Revival faction provide a clue to the real reason for the split. Tbilisi is, it seems, losing interest in the policy of "civilized separatism" favored by Abashidze. In reality, the center’s jurisdiction over Ajaria is very limited. Shevardnadze has on several times been forced to go to Ajaria to resolve issues that normally should have been settled in Tbilisi. For example, Shevardnadze went to Batumi to discuss the state and regional budgets; in the past, regional leaders used to go to Tbilisi for such discussions. Last year’s session of the parliamentary bureau discussing different models of a federalism was also held in Batumi, rather than in Tbilisi, as would normally have been the case. The reason was that Abashidze refused to leave Batumi, saying that in Tbilisi he could be the victim of a terrorist plot.

Now, however, Tbilisi seems to feel that it is powerful enough to force Batumi to conduct its relations with Tbilisi in accordance with the formal terms of the constitution. This point has been made by Ramaz Surmanidze, one of Ajaria’s most promising young politicians. According to Surmanidze, "Political figures in Georgia must frame their activity in accordance with the constitution. Anyone who violates this principle will find that his political career is over. The same applies to relations between the center and the regions." Some observers believe that Surmanidze has been selected by Tbilisi as Abashidze’s eventual successor.

The Ajarian political elite, which once granted Abashidze virtually unlimited power, is said to have become alarmed by his confrontational line. According to some sources, the elite feels Abashidze has overplayed the "Moscow card" in his stand-off with Tbilisi. The Russian military group based in Batumi reportedly provides Abashidze with armed support, supplying weapons and professional advice to the semi-legal militia created by Abashidze to guard Ajaria’s border against penetration by "terrorists" from other parts of Georgia. In return, Abashidze speaks of the Russian military presence as the only reliable guarantee of Ajaria’s stability. He has invited high-ranking Russian politicians to Batumi without notifying Tbilisi and has, in numerous interviews with Russian media, depicted Ajaria as a target of subversive activities coming from central authorities.

The Ajarian elite are reportedly growing increasingly unwilling to sacrifice their interests to Abashidze’s personal ambitions. Some observers predict that, unless Abashidze abandons his confrontation with Tbilisi, splits within the Ajarian political establishment will grow deeper. Many influential political groups in the region want to see Ajaria’s future as one of constructive dialogue with Tbilisi — just as long as Tbilisi does not call Ajaria’s status as an autonomous republic into question.

Abashidze seems well aware of the seriousness of the conflict within the "Revival" faction. First, he attempted to blame the actions of the defectors on his own sickness. (In August, Abashidze underwent heart surgery in Istanbul, followed by a month in hospital.) Then, he sought to intensify his contacts with the Russian political and military establishments. Recently, for example, Abashidze has proposed that the Russian units now deployed in other Georgian regions, where they are reportedly living in very poor conditions, should move to Ajaria.

Abashidze also claims to have documentary proof that unnamed Georgian politicians are plotting to deprive Ajaria of its autonomy. In a TV interview on October 19, Tamaz Kharazi, the former mayor of Batumi, accused the speaker of the Georgian parliament, Zurab Zhvania, and the head of the CUG’s Ajarian wing, Rostom Dolidze, of plotting to overthrow Abashidze. Kharazi claimed that he met Zhvania and Dolidze on vacation in August, and that they invited him to join a conspiracy to oust Abashidze and replace the Ajarian government. He said a number of top Georgian law enforcement officers and parliamentary deputies were also involved in the plot. Immediately following Kharazi’s interview, Ajarian TV screened a documentary on the Abkhazian war entitled "What Did Ajaria Escape?"

Zhvania and Dolidze vehemently denied the accusations which, they said, represented an attempt to damage relations between Batumi and Tbilisi. Dolidze admitted meeting with Kharazi, but said it was simply a talk between old friends. Zhvania said Kharazi’s charges stemmed from "the policy of moral and physical blackmail" flourishing in Ajaria. Some observers speculated that Kharazi, who lost his post ten months ago on corruption charges, was merely trying to rehabilitate himself in Abashidze’s eyes. If Kharazi’s allegations turn out to be correct, however, they would corroborate the suggestion that conflicts are brewing within the Ajarian establishment.

Meanwhile, Ajaria’s social and economic situation is deteriorating. Reforms have stalled and privatization has not yet started. Business is increasingly in the grip of racketeers. More than any other region of Georgia, Ajaria has preserved a patriarchal-Communistic social structure. Russian media frequently portray Ajaria as an "oasis of stability" in conflict-torn Georgia, but this glowing picture cannot hide the region’s serious problems. Clearly, Ajaria cannot stand apart from the changes taking place in the rest of Georgia. These changes are seen as one of the main reasons for the growing split within Ajaria’s establishment.

Developments in Ajaria and its relations with Tbilisi should be an object lesson for Georgian government. The legislative vacuum still existing in center-regional relations, the reluctance of the central government to share power with the regions, and Tbilisi’s failure to assert its jurisdiction over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, all threaten to provoke further centrifugal tensions within the country.

Zaal Anjaparidze is head of information at the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development (CIPDD) in Tbilisi, and editor of its monthly bulletin, Georgian Chronicle. CIPDD is a non-governmental organization operating since 1992 and engaged in research, publishing and other activities aimed at building a civil society. Mr. Anjaparidze is also editor-in-chief of Resonance, one of Georgia’s first independent newspapers, which has been published since 1990 and which is now also available in an English-language edition.

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