The spirit of conciliation is poised to give way to a renewed mood of confrontation as Georgia's new leadership grapples with the question of how to reassert central control over the country's recalcitrant autonomous regions.
One of President-elect Mikhail Saakashvili's top policy goals is the restoration of Tbilisi's authority across all of Georgia's territory. Ajaria is quickly shaping up as a proving ground for Saakashvili's policies once he is inaugurated on January 25.
Prior to Georgia's tumultuous November parliamentary election, Saakashvili's dealings with Ajarian political strongman Aslan Abashidze were marked by antagonism. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In December, after Saakashvili led popular protests that culminated in the former president Eduard Shevardnadze's resignation, the mutually hostile language gave way to an interlude of conciliatory rhetoric.
Saakashvili indicated that Abashidze could play "an important role" in Georgia's political life. Meanwhile, Abashidze did not follow through on threats that Ajaria would boycott the January 4 presidential election, won by Saakashvili. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. As recently as January 9, Abashidze said he was ready to "actively cooperate" with Tbilisi, describing Ajaria as "an integral part of Georgia," according to the Itar-Tass news agency.
Mutual suspicion remained beneath the veneer of compromise -- a fact underscored by Ajarian officials' decision to arrest two student activists on January 7. The activists members of the Kmara student organization, which played a high-profile role in the Tbilisi protests in early November were taken into custody on January 6 in the Ajarian capital of Batumi on charges of possessing weapons and seditious pamphlets.
The incident threatens to put Georgian-Ajarian relations back on a hostile footing. Interim Georgian government leaders have denounced the Ajarian arrests, along with Abashidze's decision to re-impose a "state of emergency" in Batumi. "The days when human rights activists and people merely holding different views can be arrested [arbitrarily] should be over," said Zurab Zhvania, the interim government leader who is slated to become prime minister in Saakashvili's administration.
On January 8, an Ajarian security official, Jemal Gogitidze, aggravated the situation, describing the Kmara detainees as "criminals." Gogitidze insisted that there was no political motive behind the arrests. "The arrested men are not associated with politics. They needed politics only to use as a cover," he said. Ajarian leaders further rankled Tbilisi by curtailing regional access to media outlets, including the Rustavi-2 television channel, that are pro-Saakashvili in orientation.
In Tbilisi, patience is wearing thin among Saakashvili's political allies, many of whom believe that a political compromise with Abashidze is unobtainable. David Berdzenishvili, a top official in Saakashvili's National Movement, said recently that Abashidze's days as Ajaria's unquestioned ruler had "expired." He went on to state that Tbilisi is determined to ensure that parliamentary elections, scheduled for March 28, are held in a free-and-fair atmosphere in Ajaria a region that is notorious for rigged votes. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Abashidze must adapt quickly to a new political reality, under which he would function as an opposition leader, Berdzenishvili said. "If he is ready for this he is welcome to play this role," Berdzenishvili said. "If not, we may allow him to seek some comfortable place outside of country."
According to some political analysts in Tbilisi, it would be unwise for Saakashvili's administration to rely on overtly confrontational tactics. Abashidze will not be easily coerced into accepting Tbilisi's authority. One analyst, Paata Zakareishvili, said that bloodshed could result if Tbilisi attempted to drive Abashidze from power via popular protests. "If people hit the streets, Abashidze is ready for very radical steps [even] the use of force. He also pins hopes on his ally Russia," Zakareishvili said.
Already, Georgia's interim government is providing support for an anti-Abashidze political initiative in Ajaria. The movement "Our Ajaria" was created in Tbilisi by the Ajarian intellectuals and politicians who seek to liberalize Abashidze's authoritarian system in the region. Endorsed by Saakashvili's National Movement, Our Ajaria has seeks to come to power through the ballot box, and then implement political change in the region.
Tamaz Diasamidze, one of the founders of the movement says, Our Ajaria supporters "do not want to overthrow the Ajarian [leadership] through street rallies, as it happened in Tbilisi [last November]."
"The transfer of power in Ajaria should take place through democratic elections," Diasamidze added. "However, if Abashidze aggravates the situation by arresting people and pursuing his dictatorial policy, that may trigger a revolution."
Jaba Devdariani is a board member of the United Nations Association of Georgia and analyst of Georgian politics, currently working in Bosnia and Herzegovina.