With parliamentary elections in Georgia fast approaching, a confrontational mood is building in the country's recalcitrant region of Ajaria. The regional leader, Aslan Abashidze, remains intent on defending his authority. The central government under President Mikheil Saakashvili appears equally determined to ensure that Ajaria holds fair elections.
Since Georgia regained independence in 1991, Abashidze has steadily tightened his control over Ajaria, a region that is notorious for election irregularities that deliver overwhelming majorities favoring incumbent authorities. Saakashvili and Abashidze have long feuded over the political relationship between Tbilisi and Batumi, with the Georgian president seeking to enhance the central government's influence over the region. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
For a few weeks surrounding Georgia's special presidential election in early January, won by Saakashvili with a lopsided majority, tension between Tbilisi and Batumi subsided. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A special parliamentary election scheduled for March 28 appears to be helping to fuel the recent spike in tension.
Over the past few weeks Ajaria has experienced politically related violence involving Abashidze loyalists and local political opponents. On February 20, street fighting between pro- and anti-Abashidze forces convulsed Batumi during a visit by the Council of Europe's Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer. Officials in Tbilisi accused Abashidze of "openly organizing a confrontation."
On the night of February 21-22, the local office of the Georgian Christian Democratic Union suffered an arson attack, and the local party leader, Avtandil Darchia, was reportedly briefly abducted and beaten. Meanwhile, on two consecutive nights, February 21 and 22, the offices of another party, Our Ajaria, were ransacked.
Ajarian officials have attributed the attacks to "unknown political forces" from outside Ajaria, alleging that the motive for the attacks was a desire to sow instability in Batumi. Meanwhile, the leader of Our Ajaria, Tamaz Diasamidze, alleged Abashidze was directly involved. "Abashidze's bodyguards are personally in charge of several bandit gangs operating ... in and around town," Diasamidze said in comments broadcast by Imedi TV on February 23. "At the top of this criminal pyramid is Aslan Abashidze himself. This man pulls absolutely all of the strings."
The disturbances in Ajaria began a day after Georgian law enforcement officials in Tbilisi opened an investigation into the Omega Group a major Georgian conglomerate with holdings in publishing and mass media, tobacco and auto dealerships -- for possible tax evasion. According to some media reports, investigators suspect that the Omega Group's operations are somehow linked to Ajaria. Top company executives won parliamentary seats, and therefore obtained immunity from prosecution, by running on the Abashidze-led Revival Union party list. Omega is also reportedly a top donor to the Revival Union, Imedi TV reported.
Preceding the Omega investigation was a bitter exchange between Abashidze and Saakashvili over the Ajarian leader's reluctance to visit Tbilisi for direct discussions with central government officials. According to a February 18 report by Caucasus Press, Abashidze set a condition for traveling to Tbilisi, demanding that Georgian authorities open an investigation into an alleged plot by former president Eduard Shevardnadze's administration to assassinate the Ajarian leader.
The same day Saakashvili indicated that he would not abide Abashidze's political insubordination for long. "Either he [Abashidze] recognizes me, us, as his government and I think he is doing this, but must follow through on this to the end or there will be an appropriate reaction by this government," Saakashvili said.
Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania called the recent political violence in Ajaria "absolutely unacceptable" and vowed that those responsible would be prosecuted. "Everyone should understand that nobody will be forgiven the savage beating of people just because they hold different political views," Zhvania told Rustavi-2 television on February 23.
Subsequently, a brawl erupted in the Georgian parliament between Abashidze supporters and MPs loyal to Saakashvili. In addition, two Ajarian students were taken into custody in Tbilisi on illegal weapons possessions charges. The two were released February 27. The next day, Ajarian authorities responded by releasing two Kmara activists who had been taken into custody in early January, Caucasus Press reported. Kmara is a pro-civil society student organization with close ties to Saakashvili.
On February 28, Abashidze warned that "the center is planning to invade Ajaria with tanks," Caucasus Press reported. Saakashvili has disavowed the use of force in trying to restore Tbilisi's authority over Ajaria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Given the existing tension, however, Abashidze's verbal salvo will certainly not be the last political shot fired in the ongoing power struggle.