“Aslan has fled, Ajaria is free!” With these words, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili greeted his countrymen on the morning on May 6, 2004. A popular revolution in the Georgian Autonomous Republic of Ajaria had toppled the region’s strongman, Aslan Abashidze, ending his 13-year rule and halting his potentially secessionist agenda.
Although Saakashvili plans to attend, local authorities insist that the revolution’s commemoration will be celebrated quite modestly. Their low-key approach is related to the current situation in Ajaria and the accompanying atmosphere of unrealized expectations (see EDM May 7 and 25, 2004).
The new government of Ajaria is led by Saakashvili’s former classmate Levan Varshalomidze, who is from an influential family in Ajaria. Shortly after Levan took office, his father, Guram Varshalomidze, became head of the local state-owned oil company and, according to the media, the de facto governor of Ajaria.
Little has changed from the Abashidze era other than the separatist agenda being dropped. The post-revolution motto: “Free Ajaria from Abashidze’s residue” rings hollow. Murman Dumbadze, a member of the Ajarian parliament from the opposition Republican Party, says that Ajaria still suffers from personalistic leadership, nepotism, and clan governance. The opposition claims that Abashidze holdovers have struck deals that allow them to remain in the government and occupy key posts.
The post-Abashidze redistribution of power and spheres of influence led to a split in the local branch of the ruling National Movement. Several leading party activists resigned their membership in February and March. Davit Batsikadze, deputy chairman of the National Movement’s parliamentary faction in Ajaria’s legislature, cited disagreements with Ajaria’s leadership to explain his resignation.
Many people who actively supported the National Movement and were integral to the Ajarian bloodless revolution now complain that their contribution has been forgotten.
The first major crisis for the new Ajarian authorities erupted on March 3, when a group of journalists rallied in Batumi to protest, as they put it, “strict censorship” and pressure from the authorities on the local state-owned television station. The protest erupted shortly after the main anchor of the local news program, Nata Imedaishvili, and thirteen other journalists resigned. Reportedly the Television Directorate forced Imedaishvili to quit after her husband resigned from the National Movement. The authorities managed to hush up the potential scandal by replacing Television Directorate personnel.
But the authorities’ problems continued. On March 3, Eka Kherkheulidze, a local parliamentarian and member of the ruling party, publicly accused Varshalomidze of promoting his relatives to high positions in the government. She gave Varshalomidze a list of these tainted officials. Moreover, Kherkheulidze claims that some Abashidze-era officials have kept their jobs. Kherkheulidze threatened “a serious scandal at the next meeting of the National Movement’s political council” unless Varshalomidze sacks these officials within the next two or three weeks. Varshalomidze denied the allegations of clan governance but conceded that his personnel policies should be reviewed. In April activists from the Ajarian branch of the ruling party were summoned to Tbilisi to receive a strong dressing down, according to the media.
Recently the ministers of interior, healthcare, and finance, among others, have all been sacked. Varshalomidze’s father reportedly will become Ambassador to Ukraine. Rumors suggest that Levan Varshalomidze will be replaced by Jemal Inaishvili, chair of the Georgian Chamber of Industry and Commerce and one of the engineers of the Ajarian revolution.
The local establishment is growing increasingly unhappy with developments in post-Abashidze Ajaria. Murman Dumbadze, a member of the Ajarian parliament from the opposition Republican Party, says that the popularity of the ruling National Movement in Ajaria has ebbed, particularly after the sham elections to the local parliament on June 20, 2004. “The sooner we forget the May 6 revolution in Ajaria, as well as the November 23  Rose Revolution, the better it would be for the region,” he said.
Opposition groups claim that Ajarian citizens disloyal to the ruling party have actually been marginalized from mainstream politics and instead have become a target for vicious attacks by the authorities. The opposition also insists on investigating alleged financial abuse by the “Ajaria Shipping Company,” a joint venture established by Levan Varshalomidze’s father and Aslan Abashidze in 1992.
Ajaria’s limited autonomy and the unequal separation of powers between Tbilisi and Batumi remain a sore point between Georgia and the Council of Europe. Visiting Tbilisi April 14-15, Terry Davis, secretary-general of the Council of Europe, demanded that Georgia reconsider and possibly upgrade Ajaria’s current political status. Although Tbilisi claims that the overwhelming majority of Ajarians would welcome the full abolition of Ajaria’s autonomy, David Bakradze, chair of the parliamentarian committee for integration in Europe, admitted that the Georgian legislature is willing to amend the law on Ajaria’s status, which was originally adopted shortly after the revolution (see EDM, June 24, 2004).
Despite lingering governance issues in Ajaria, some analysts argue that the need for Georgia to restore Tbilisi’s control over the region overrides this problem, because it has destroyed the long-term geopolitical ambitions of some hard-line Russian factions wanting to separate Ajaria from Georgia.
(Civil Georgia, Imedi TV, RIA-Novosti, March 3; Georgian Times, April 21, 28; Inter-Press, April 29; Imedi-TV, April 30, May 4; Caucasus Press, May 4; Resonance April, 16, May 3, 4, 24; Saati, May 4)