Saakashvili and Abashidze have clashed on the question of the central government's authority in Ajaria since November, when protesters forced the resignation of former Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Over the weekend of March 13-14, a rapid escalation of tension pushed Georgia to the brink of armed conflict.
A chain reaction began March 13, when Abashidze flew to Moscow for "consultations." The trip appeared designed to antagonize Georgian leaders, who have condemned Abashidze for making earlier forays to Moscow, while at the same time, refusing to travel to Tbilisi for direct talks. Abashidze told the Russian news agency Itar-Tass that he felt obliged to go to Russia on March 13 "to inform the international community of the chaos and bacchanalia reigning in Georgia."
On the morning of March 14, Saakashvili and an extended entourage attempted to travel to Ajaria in an auto convoy, ostensibly to address a protest march organized in connection with upcoming parliamentary elections. Ajarian police reportedly barred Saakashvili from entering Ajarian territory. Georgian leaders retreated to the nearby port city of Poti, where Saakashvili established an "anti-crisis" center," headed by Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania. The Georgian president also issued an ultimatum March 14, giving Ajarian leaders 24 hours to "come to their senses." Basically, Saakashvili said that Ajaria must submit to central control -- giving top Georgian officials unimpeded access to the territory, and disbanding locally controlled armed formations -- or Tbilisi would impose a total blockade. Saakashvili also vowed to freeze the assets of the Ajarian leadership. When the deadline set by Saakashvili passed on the evening of March 15, he ordered the implementation of sanctions.
Members of Saakashvili's cabinet stressed that the March 14 border incident was "shameful," and that such autonomous action on Ajaria's part would no longer be tolerated. "Not only in this specific region [Ajaria], but across the whole of Georgia, the situation is deteriorating because of constant claims about the existence of some kind of alternative Georgia," Interior Minister Giorgi Baramidze said in an interview with the Rustavi-2 television station on March 14. "This is doing our country harm both economically and politically. Appropriate measures, which a legitimately elected government enjoying a lot of public support is entitled to take, will be implemented. It is the government's constitutional duty to protect the interests and dignity of every Georgian citizen and the country's territorial integrity."
Various Georgian officials have said that Tbilisi does not intend to use force. Yet, Russian media reported that Georgian troops had been put on alert. "We have no plans to use military force, although we have every right to do what is envisioned by the constitution to protect Georgia's territorial integrity," Saakashvili said March 13. A day later, in Poti, Saakashvili told journalists: "We are doing all we can to resolve the crisis peacefully, but we do not intend to give in."
Abashidze, who returned to Batumi late on March 14, indicated that he will not willingly relinquish his autonomous powers. "Ultimatums are out of place when speaking with one's own people and in one's own country," Itar-Tass quoted Abashidze as saying March 15. The Ajarian leader has placed the region under a nighttime curfew, and according to some reports, has authorized the distribution of arms to his supporters.
Earlier Abashidze said Saakashvili's government sought to engineer his ouster, claiming that an opposition political rally March 14 would be used as a pretext to launch a coup against Ajaria's incumbent leadership. Abashidze also claimed that Saakashvili threatened to shoot down his plane as it returned from Moscow. The Ajarian leader called on Russia to dispatch troops to the region to serve as "peacekeepers."
"It is essential for peacekeepers to come between the armed forces and the civilian population before a new trouble spot appears in Georgia," Abashidze told Itar-Tass. "There in no other alternative."
A March 14 statement issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry characterized the Georgian government's behavior as "provocative and bluntly stated that "in the event of a crisis, all responsibility will lie with the Georgian leadership."
"The Georgian leadership has stated on several occasions that it seeks to resolve the problems existing in the country by democratic means," the Russian statement continued. "At the same time, the impression is created that, as before, words do not correspond to deeds."
On March 15, some Georgian media outlets alleged that six Russian armored vehicles had left the base and has taken up defensive position on Ajarian territory. Such reports could not be independently verified. A Russian military spokesman said that "under no circumstances" would the troops leave the base, the Interfax news agency reported. Saakashvili urged Russian forces to remain neutral. "This is not their country, this is our country," Saakashvili told Rustavi-2 television. "Any such development [Russian intervention] will lead to tragedy and disaster."
Political observers in Tbilisi remain concerned that Russia will in some way attempt to influence developments. Some analysts note that about half of the Russian troop contingent in Batumi comprises native-born Ajarians. These troops could stage a "mutiny," acting spontaneously to defend Ajaria from a possible incursion, one observer suggested. Others worry that the Russian base could prove a source of arms and materiel for Ajarian paramilitary groups.
The trigger for the Tbilisi-Batumi confrontation is the March 28 parliamentary election, some political experts believe. Ajaria is infamous for its closed political system, in which Abashidze rules without democratic checks and balances, and elections are routinely rigged to provide large majorities for the benefit of incumbent authority. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Saakashvili has long insisted that Ajaria hold a free and fair parliamentary vote this month.
"Central authorities do not want to have the elections in Ajaria according to the way they were done in the past," said Ghia Nodia, chairman of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development. "On the other hand, Ajarian authorities cannot afford to hold elections in the manner that Tbilisi wants."
Abashidze's appeal for Russian peacekeepers has outraged many in Tbilisi. Yet, while most Georgians view Abashidze as a major obstacle to Georgia's ability to implement reforms and restore its territorial integrity, many are wary of any attempt to use force to unseat him. Georgians remember all two well that Tbilisi came out on the losing end of two earlier separatist conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Despite such reservations, Saakashvili appeared determined to bring Ajaria back under Tbilisi's authority. "I certainly do not intend to back down in this situation, or to forgive them [Ajarian leaders] anything in the future if they overstep the mark beyond which there is no going back."
Jaba Devdariani is a board member of the United Nations Association of Georgia and analyst of Georgian politics, currently working in Bosnia and Herzegovina.