After a few days of relative peace between Ajaria and Tbilisi, tension is again on the rise. Ajaria's regional leader, Aslan Abashidze, appears to be backpedaling from an agreement reached with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on the division of powers between the central and regional government.
The Saakashvili-Abashidze agreement on March 18 defused a situation fraught with the possibility of armed conflict. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The central point of the pact was Abashidze's supposed recognition of Tbilisi's authority, especially in the realm of customs revenue collection. In return for that recognition, Tbilisi lifted an economic blockade. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Recent statements by Abashidze, however, indicate that his interpretation of the agreement differs markedly from Saakashvili's.
In comments broadcast by the Imedi TV channel on March 21, Abashidze said central government representatives at customs posts -- at the port of Batumi, and at the Sarpi border crossing at the Turkish frontier -- would have purely an advisory function, while locally appointed officials would make all final decisions. "They [central government representatives] can say that they do not like something, or something is wrong," Abashidze said. "Local officials will either acknowledge that a particular problem exists and has to be rectified, or they will disagree."
In addition, the March 18 agreement required Abashidze to disband armed units that had been mobilized during the Tbilisi-Batumi confrontation, which was touched off March 14 when Ajarian security forces refused to allow Saakashvili's motorcade to enter the territory. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. On March 21, Abashidze appeared to make disarmament conditional on the central government dropping criminal charges against top Ajarian security officials and on the un-freezing of assets controlled by the Batumi-based Maritime Bank. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
According to a March 22 report by the Civil Georgia web site, Ajarian officials are preventing central government representatives from carrying out their duties at customs posts. The report went on to say that Saakashvili gave Ajarian officials 48 hours to allow his customs representatives to function or face a renewed economic blockade.
A primary aim of Saakashvili's administration is the reestablishment of Tbilisi's authority across Georgia's entire territory. Abashidze's recent statements and actions run counter to that aim. "The main problem [behind the Tbilisi-Batumi dispute] was not customs duties, but the fact that there cannot be two political systems in Georgia," Saakashvili told the Russian NTV television channel in a March 21 interview.
"What had been taking place in Ajaria [during former president Eduard Shevardnadze's administration] could not be described in any other way but as lawlessness," Saakashvili continued. "It [Ajaria] was not an autonomous region, it was in fact a territory where there were no laws, where smuggling was in full swing. ... We [in Tbilisi] are not living in the Middle Ages, happy to be receiving tribute from some territories and not caring about what is happening there."
Another point of the March 18 agreement covered the upcoming parliamentary elections March 28. Abashidze pledged to allow for a free-and-fair vote on Ajarian territory. But the March 20 beating of an opposition activist from the Kmara student movement raises questions about Abashidze's commitment to allowing for an open campaign environment.
On March 19, Central Election Commission (CEC) Chairman Zurab Chiaberashvili expressed concern that the Saakashvili-Abashidze agreement would not be sufficient to guarantee fair elections in Ajaria. The main problem, according to Chiaberashvili, is inadequate voter lists, which could potentially help local officials manipulate election results. Officials in Tbilisi have already dismissed two local election officials in Ajaria for submitting inaccurate voter lists to the CEC, Civil Georgia reported.
Daan van der Schreik has reported from throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia. He has covered the Georgian elections for EurasiaNet from Batumi and Tbilisi.