As it seeks to consolidate its authority, Georgia's provisional leadership is confronting a host of political, economic and diplomatic challenges. How to handle the autonomous region of Ajaria is arguably shaping up as the biggest near-term conundrum for the interim government in Tbilisi. Animosity on both sides appears to be rising, but some political observers believe room exists for compromise.
Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze has expressed a desire to engage in "logical dialogue." At the same time, however, he has been an outspoken critic of the provisional government. On December 3, Abashidze cast new doubt about Georgia's immediate future, saying that Ajaria would boycott the upcoming presidential election, unless the vote was pushed back from its scheduled date January 4. "Georgia is not ready for any election, let alone an election of such vital importance," the Russian Itar-Tass news agency quoted Abashidze as saying. "It will be nothing but vote rigging."
National Movement leader Mikheil Saakashvili, the de facto leader of the governing provisional triumvirate in Tbilisi, is widely viewed as the odds-on favorite to win the presidential vote. His ability to claim a legitimate mandate for democratic reform would be undermined by an election boycott in Ajaria.
Saakashvili immediately rejected Abashidze's demand, saying the election date is determined by Georgia's constitution. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "Proceeding from the needs of stability in Georgia, the terms set by the constitution should be observed," Saakashvili said in comments broadcast by Georgian state television.
A major factor in shaping Ajaria's position is the personal enmity that exists between Saakashvili and Abashidze. Their mutual hostility was readily evident during the campaign leading up to the November 2 parliamentary election, the rigging of which precipitated the downfall of Eduard Shevardnadze's administration. The most serious instance of campaign-related violence occurred when Saakashvili supporters clashed with Ajarian law-enforcement officials and Abashidze loyalists in the Ajarian capital Batumi. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Abashidze continues to insist that the provisional government came to power illegitimately through a "coup, not a revolution." He added that the interim government was trampling on civil rights as it seeks to implement democratic changes, saying the provisional government was taking Georgia in the wrong direction. "If the new political leadership fails to change its policy, it will all come to a sad end, it will end in failure," he said.
Those in Tbilisi widely view Abashidze as an authoritarian ruler desperate to retain control of his political fiefdom in Ajaria. During the Shevardnadze administration, Abashidze steadily increased his authority for autonomous action, in exchange for providing political support to the former president. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Ajaria is notorious for its rigged elections that ensured massive majorities for incumbent authority. Numerous instances of electoral abuse were reported during the November 2 vote [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Yet, Abashidze vigorously denied any ballot tampering. "The previous election was rigged, but not in Ajaria. We had not a single instance of irregularities," he said.
Many in Tbilisi scoff at such a claim. Instead, they see Ajaria's future role as that of a pawn in Russia's ongoing effort to exert pressure on Georgia. They cite the fact that Abashidze has spent much of the last week in Moscow engaging in consultations with Russian political and business leaders. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Russian officials are worried that a Saakashvili-led administration in Tbilisi will make a radical foreign policy departure -- steering Georgia away from Russia's sphere of influence and towards integration with Western political, military and economic structures. Moscow kept up its verbal assault on the Georgian provisional government December 3, condemning Tbilisi for not taking steps to arrest visiting Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who is wanted in Russia. Berezovsky, who lives in exile in Britain, jetted to Tbilisi on December 3 to supposedly visit a friend.
Saakashvili in his television comments castigated Abashidze. "It is quite clear that they [Ajaria and other provisional government opponents] are trying to put an end to us," Saakashvili said.
"The later the [presidential and parliamentary] elections are held, the more time they will have to think of a method to put an end to me and my friends. However, they will fail," Saakashvili continued. "They do not want Saakashvili. But the Georgian people are not going to ask them for their opinion."
Despite the antagonistic rhetoric, both sides are keeping their options open for a political compromise that would afford Abashidze a degree of autonomy while giving Tbilisi increased influence over the territory's affairs.
Interim State Secretary Zurab Zhvania has reportedly had at least one telephone conversation with Abashidze. Georgia's interim president, Nino Burjanadze, says she intends to go to Batumi in the coming days for direct talks with the Ajarian leader.
Abashidze also describes Ajaria as "open for dialogue, but this will be a logical dialogue." For now, Abashidze says Ajaria has no intention of joining Georgia's other autonomous regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia in trying to secede from Tbilisi. Instead he is striving for a reconfiguration of Georgia's state structure, under which Ajaria would enjoy a confederal relationship with Tbilisi. "If we want peace, we have to review this issue [Georgia's state structure]," Abashidze said.
Georgia's provisional government is seeking to expand Tbilisi's authority over the country's regions, and thus is unlikely to welcome any proposal that would dilute central authority.
Complicating the Ajarian issue of for the provisional government is Abashidze's close relationship with Russia. While in Moscow, Abashidze expressed a desire to see the Russian military presence in Ajaria continue. Moscow has a military base in Batumi. Tbilisi has pressed for the quick withdrawal of all Russian military personnel from Georgia.
Political observers believe that, if managed properly, a dialogue between Abashidze and the provisional government could yield a compromise. "The Ajarians are Georgians after all," said political scientist Paata Zakareishvili. "There is no ethnic problem here as was the case with Abkhazia and South Ossetia."
On November 28, the Ajarian representative to Georgia, Hamlet Chipashvili, told EurasiaNet that economic interaction between Ajaria and Georgia proper was continuing, denying reports that Ajarian officials had tried to seal the region's border. "This would be impossible because so much trade flows through it. There is just increased inspection," Chipashvili said. According to reports, Turkish trucks were able to pass through the internal border. But the train link between Tbilisi and Batumi has been cut.
According to Zakareishvili, Tbilisi's ability to be patient is a key to whether the two sides can surmount existing differences. "It is important now that Tbilisi doesn't make any provocations against Batumi," said Zakareishvili. It seems that Tbilisi is trying to do just this. However, the provisional government's patience will be severely tested if Ajarian leaders attempt to follow through on their vow to boycott the presidential election.
This story contains reporting by Daan van der Schriek.