STORY: AJARIA SEARCHES FOR A FRESH START Print this page  |  Email this page   
By Molly Corso

When the Rose Revolution finally came to Ajaria in May 2004, it started with a bang. Ajarians received instant gratification for their role in overthrowing longtime regional leader and Tbilisi foe Aslan Abashidze: new buses, new elections, a new bridge and the promise of investment and jobs. But one year later, region residents say a growing gap exists between what the central government promised and what they have today.

It all comes down to autonomy. The Georgian government promised that Ajaria would retain its autonomous status, and they have been true to their word. But limitations placed on that autonomy have sparked tensions that refuse to die.

According to the July 5, 2004 law that established Ajaria’s status as an autonomous republic, the Georgian president retains the right to nominate Ajaria’s prime minister – officially known as “chairman of the Ajarian Autonomous Republic” -- and disband the region’s legislature, the Supreme Council, as well as its cabinet. Fiscal policy falls to the Ajarian government, but Tbilisi holds responsibility for security and defense. The prime minister can also veto decisions made by the Supreme Council – a provision criticized as favoring Tbilisi rather than Batumi.

President Saakashvili has said that such limitations are necessary to prevent any upsurge in separatism and to encourage the region’s economic development. But for Aslan Migrelidze, a hunter from the Ajarian town of Kobuleti, those explanations carry little weight. “It is now obvious that it is an autonomy in name only,” he said. “Now Ajaria is like a forgotten corner of [the neighboring region of] Guria.”

The issue of Ajarian autonomy has never caused as many concerns for Tbilisi as the territories of Abkhazia or South Ossetia, but after Abashidze’s ouster, the region was seen as a potential model to aid peace talks with separatist Abkhaz and South Ossetian leaders. Those hopes have long since died.

Some Ajarians blame their governor’s youth and inexperience for why the post-Abashidze Ajaria has not met their expectations. Thirty-three-year-old Levan Varshalomidze, along with current Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, was one of the founding partners of DVNK, a Tbilisi-based legal and financial consulting firm. In early 2004, he served as head of Georgian State Railways for four months, until his appointment as Ajaria’s head of government in May of that year. Although Varshalomidze is an Ajarian by birth, he had no previous experience with government administration.

Opposition members charged that Varshalomidze lacked the management skills to juggle Ajaria’s political and economic problems. In March 2005, the local branch of the ruling National Movement Party added to the criticism with a charge that the governor had appointed his relatives to high-ranking government positions in Ajaria -- a serious problem during the Abashidze regime. With the president’s support, Varshalomidze denied the claims and the scandal quietly died.

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But the suspicions linger on . Adding to the scrutiny are strong objections from the Council of Europe and its advisory group on constitutional law, the Venice Commission, that the Saakashvili administration has done too much to reel Ajaria in. Echoing these claims, Davit Usupashvili, a legal expert and member of the opposition Republican Party, argues that the central government has stripped Ajarian power to the bare minimum. “Major problems started from the law which affectively abolished any decentralization,” he said. “[I]t is better to say that [Ajaria] has no autonomy at all.”

The governor’s office could not be reached for comment.

Not all Ajarians, though, support the criticism of the region’s new government. “Vashmolidze is not at fault. If someone else came, the problems would be the same,” Batumi market trader Nanuli Marchandze said. “Everything was destroyed when he came. He can’t change everything fast.” Countered Migrelidze: “He is playing someone else’s guitar.”

Economics drives much of the discontent. According to data from the Georgian Bureau of Statistics, 18 percent of the working-age population in Ajaria is unemployed, and a whopping 64.1 percent of the general population lives below the poverty line. Talk to an Ajarian on the street, and rising unemployment is among the first topics broached.

Government plans to reverse that situation have come to naught. In spring 2005, Ajaria planned to introduce a program that would provide government-backed loans, at 30 percent interest, to small and medium-sized businesses. The program was seen as a means to kickstart the local economy. But as of late May, the regional government had decided to abandon the program for “details” that could not be “resolved,” said Deputy Finance Minister Kakha Shabadze. Currently, the government has no concrete plans for an alternative program, he said.

Coordinated planning for Ajaria’s economic comeback appears to be at a minimum. Officials in Batumi, the regional seat and a popular tourist destination, say that they expect their seaside city’s economy to improve within the next two to four years, but cannot provide details on how this goal will be realized.

In early April 2005, Mayor Murman Beridze offered one example, stating that the city had issued up to five tenders for the construction of large hotels and apartment buildings throughout Batumi. Beridze estimated that each construction project should provide work for approximately 100-120 workers.

Beridze said he understands people are unhappy, but told EurasiaNet that they had unrealistically high expectations after the overthrow of Aslan Abashidze. “People expected fast improvement. Of course, that is not possible. They are disappointed,” he said.

While the November 2003 Rose Revolution was unfolding in Tbilisi, Ajaria lived under a state of emergency and military curfew, as decreed by regional leader Aslan Abashidze. Though the autonomous republic participated in Georgi’s January 2004 presidential elections, a state of emergency was quickly re-imposed, when protests staged by the youth movement Kmara started in Batumi. It took nearly four more months, thousands of protestors and two destroyed bridges before Abashidze fled to Moscow. On May 6, President Mikheil Saakashvili declared Ajaria “free.”

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Former Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania brought the region’s economic problems to the Georgian cabinet’s attention soon after Abashidze’s ouster and Saakashvili encouraged Georgians to travel to the Ajarian coast for their summer holidays. Although prominent businessmen initially expressed interest in Ajaria’s prospects, to date, since the overthrow of Abashidze in May 2004, no new major business investments are known to have begun.

Electricity provides one easy explanation for why the original enthusiasm for investment quickly died away, commented Tite Aroshidze, a representative of the Batumi branch of the Young Economists Association, “If a foreign investor comes, they always look at the stability [of the region] and the supply of energy,” Aroshidze said. “That is why there will be no investors here as long as we have these problems.”

Villagers throughout the region say that they went without electricity for the entire month of March. In April, the government attempted to correct the shortage by buying electricity from neighboring Turkey.

Nor did the privatization of Batumi’s port and the Batumi-based Georgian Ocean Shipping Company – two sales much touted for giving a kick to the local economy – play out exactly as planned. “Businesses who worked at the enterprises for the past ten or 15 years employed people and, when they were sold, those people ended up out of work,” Aroshidze said.

Rising prices are not helping the overall economic picture, either. According to official statistics, the median salary in Ajaria is 131.80 lari a month ($72), but the average household spends 359.70 lari a month ($197) on basic needs.

On September 2, 2004, pent-up frustrations over Ajaria’s situation came to a head when some 500 special forces from Tbilisi stormed Batumi’s central marketplace in retaliation for the beating of city police officers by merchants protesting plans to close the market. Thirteen protestors were injured in the ensuing scuffle and several more reportedly arrested by the time authorities finally cleared and closed the market.

Opposition members like Usupashvili argue that by placing limitations on Ajaria’s autonomy, the central government has only exacerbated local frustrations over the region’s economic situation.

Freedom of the press has proven one key area for conflict. In March 2005, two days of protests took place in Batumi when Ajaria TV News Editor Nata Imedaishvili charged that the director of the state-run television station, Zaza Khalvashi , was censoring broadcasts according to government dictates. Calm was only restored when Khalvashi, who had denied the charges, was replaced.

Though local journalists say the situation for media has generally improved in Ajaria since Abashidze’s ouster, they argue that much room remains for improvement. “We understand that the new government can’t do everything that it promised, but it is still hard to publish your opinion; it is not possible for journalists to publish everything they want,” Geno Gebidze, a representative of the Young Journalists Association in Batumi, said in an April 2005 interview.

Commented Usupashvili: “I don’t believe people are too demanding. I think that if the [democratic] promises were fulfilled people would not be so angry about social problems, which can not be solved in one day.”

In the meantime, Ajarians say, they’ll wait and watch.

-- With reporting by Kakha Jibladze

Editor’s Note: Molly Corso is a freelance photographer and writer based in Tbilisi.

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