Saakashvili Strengthens Control Over Ajaria

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 38

The pro-governmental “Saakashvili-Victorious Ajaria” party, the Ajarian branch of the ruling “National-Movement-Democrats,” scored a landside victory in the June 20 elections in Ajaria. The elections were the first to be held following the downfall of Aslan Abashidze’s authoritarian rule. The party received 75% of votes, winning 28 of 30 seats in the Ajarian Supreme Council. The Republican Party won only 9% and two seats. The rest of the parties failed to overcome the 7% threshold needed for representation in the local Parliament. The size of the turnout was sufficient to have the elections declared valid, according to the Ajarian Central Election Commission (Interfax, Prime News, InterPress June 21).

By the end of the day, there were reports of various violations, including vote rigging and assault-and-battery. For example, the Young Lawyers Association, a Georgian NGO that monitored the elections, claimed that more than 30% of electors did not have valid identification cards. The Council of Europe was the only large international organization to monitor the elections, sending a 12-person delegation and providing EUR24,000 for “technical support.” The council deemed the elections more democratic than past elections.

Meanwhile, non-governmental organization Fair Elections, which counted the votes independently of the elections commission, reported that the Saakashvili-Victorious Ajaria party received a 68.5% percentage of votes, while the Republican Party garnered 13.6%. The runner-up Republican Party accused authorities of a number of abuses in the pre-election period, such as dismissal of Republican members from several district election commissions and fabrication of criminal charges against Republican activists.

In an interview with Rustavi-2 TV on June 20, Republican Party leader David Berdzenishvili charged the authorities with attempted vote rigging, maintaining that, if required, party loyalists would defend their votes by protest. According to Berdzenishvili’s data, the Republican Party received 20% of votes. Two other major political parties, New Rightists and Labor Party, boycotted the elections because they considered campaign conditions to be unfair. Shalva Natelashvili, leader of the Labor Party, said at a June 22 news conference, “The elections in Ajaria were totally falsified by the incumbent authorities”(Rustavi 2 TV, Imedi TV, June 22).

Despite participation of eight political parties, one pre-election bloc and 172 candidates, few voters doubted that the Saakashvili-Victorious Ajaria” party would win an overwhelming majority in Parliament. Few expect Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and his team to loosen control over the region, which recently has been brought back under Tbilisi’s control as a result of the costly “revolution.” It is assured that current presidential envoy to Ajaria Levan Varshalomidze, a close Saakashvili confidant, will become chairman of Ajaria’s Council of Ministers. Koba Khabazi, who defected from the Republican Party to join Saakashvili Victorious Ajaria, is said to be the most likely candidate to chair the Ajarian Supreme Council.

Thus, the elections proceeded under full control of Tbilisi authorities, which had appointed chairs of all 12 district electoral commissions to guarantee victory for the Saakashvili -Victorious Ajaria. That party’s lavish campaign featured pre-election visits to Ajaria by Saakashvili and Parliament Chairwoman Nino Burjanadze. Despite the continued high popularity of the ruling party, mostly due to Saakashvili’s personality, the Ajarian branch of the party received strong backing from Tbilisi. Giorgi Arveladze, secretary general of the National-Movement-Democrats was appointed head of the election staff of Saakashvili-Victorious Ajaria

On arriving in Ajaria, Saakashvili told voters how to cast their ballots. “Today many political parties try to profit by using the president’s name. However, the sole party implementing the presidential program in the region is Saakashvili-Victorious Ajaria, he stated at a special briefing in Ajaria (“24 Hours”, June 14 Rustavi 2-TV June 13).

Saakashvili has been criticized for making lavish promises about investing huge amounts of money in the region, as well as dominating media coverage in addition to providing cheap bus travel for Ajarians in the run-up to the election. These actions are seen as violating principles of fairness by putting opposing parties on an unequal footing. Saakashvili’s approach to the Ajarian parliamentary elections appears similar to the Georgian parliamentary elections. Saakashvili publicly demonstrated his unwillingness to allow strong vocal opposition in the Georgian legislature. It seems that Saakashvili is not interested in opposition voices.

Soon after the Republican Party, ally of the National Movement and part of the constitutional majority in the Georgian Parliament, opted to take an independent stance in Ajaria, the Republicans fell out of favor with Saakashvili. The backbone of the Republican Party consists of native Ajarians, including politicians and intelligentsia who have been battling with Aslan Abashidze, chairman of Ajaria’s Supreme Council, over the last decade. These individuals contributed significantly to the anti-Abashidze revolution.

However, the Republicans’ excessive independence aggravated relations with the ruling party, and marked them for “punishment.” That punishment took the form of poor performance in the elections. Media speculation is that the Republican Party, which has six members in the Georgian Parliament’s largest faction, the “National Movement-Democrats,” is likely to leave the faction (Resonance, Mtavari Gazeti, 24 Hours, June 21). In all probability the outcome of the Ajarian elections drove a wedge through the one-time allies.

Another shadow cast over the elections was that the Georgian Parliament, as expected by many, failed to approve the constitutional law concerning the status of the Ajarian Autonomous Republic, before the elections, as required. The law, inter alia, had to define whether the Ajarian Parliament would remain a bicameral body. In this respect, opposition factions in Parliament charged that voters in Ajaria were unaware of the type of government for which they had cast their ballots. The opposition had vainly demanded that the ruling party postpone the elections.

Member of the Georgian Parliament Koba Davitashvili organized the election process in Ajaria, timed with the collection of 7,500 signatures of Ajarian inhabitants by the non-governmental organization “Union for Georgia’s Unity.” The signatures called for a plebiscite in Ajaria for abolition of autonomous status (Rustavi 2-TV, Interpress, June 20).