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Georgia: Groups Working Toward Regime Change In Restive Adjaria

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

One of the main domestic challenges facing Georgia's new leaders is to find a common position with Aslan Abashidze, the strongman of the southern autonomous republic of Adjaria. President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili, who takes office on 25 January, has vowed to restore Tbilisi's jurisdiction over Georgia's Black Sea region. In the Georgian capital, opponents of Abashidze are preparing for a battle ahead of parliamentary elections they hope will bring a change of regime in Batumi, the regional capital.

Prague, 22 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Aslan Abashidze has maintained ambiguous and sometimes conflicting relations with Georgian central authorities since he was elected chairman of the Adjaria Supreme Council (parliament) in 1991.

During the tenure of former President Eduard Shevardnadze, the Adjar leader was able to establish a firm grip over his Black Sea region. While technically in opposition to the Georgian government, he regularly lent his support to Shevardnadze in times of crisis -- thus ensuring that Tbilisi would not interfere in Adjaria's internal affairs.

At the same time, the pro-Russian Abashidze traveled often between his capital, Batumi, and Moscow, refusing to set foot in Tbilisi on the pretense that central authorities were plotting an attempt on his life.

While agreeing on the need for a change of regime in Batumi and restore rule over Abashidze's fiefdom, Our Adjaria leaders seem at odds over how to achieve these goals.
Yet the 65-year-old Abashidze sided with Shevardnadze in the political standoff that followed November's disputed parliamentary elections. The high, but disputed, showing of the pro-Abashidze Democratic Revival Union in those elections relegated Georgia's radical opposition parties to the third and fifth positions.

Anxious to avoid violence between Abashidze's supporters and opposition activists, Shevardnadze eventually resigned, paving the way for early presidential elections that saw National Movement leader Mikheil Saakashvili accede to power.

Shevardnadze's resignation has given new impetus to Abashidze's opponents. On 26 December, a new movement uniting members of various political parties was launched in Tbilisi with the stated aim of ending Abashidze's regime. One of the immediate goals of Our Adjaria -- as this umbrella organization is known -- was to ensure that the 4 January presidential ballot took place in the restive province.

Abashidze, who had earlier said his region would boycott the election, eventually retracted his decision and authorized the opening of polling stations in Adjaria. But he immediately reimposed the state of emergency he had temporarily lifted to allow the election to take place.

Election officials in Batumi claim Saakashvili garnered only 25.5 percent of the votes in the region. But Abashidze's opponents say that, as in the rest of Georgia, more than 96 percent of voters in Adjaria cast their ballots for the National Movement chairman.

Fortified by these figures, and Saakashvili's pledges to bring the area back into Tbilisi's fold, Abashidze's opponents hope a parliamentary election rerun on 28 March will deprive Abashidze of his power base in the Georgian legislature and herald a change of regime in Batumi.

Our Adjara co-founder Tamaz Diasamidze tells our correspondent that the ultimate objective of his group is to put an end to what the opposition describes as Abashidze's dictatorial regime and ensure a peaceful political transition in the Black Sea province.

Diasamidze says his group has long-term plans. "First of all, we need to settle the [political] process in Adjaria by restoring the people's democratic rule. What that means is that we must first ensure that democratic parliamentary elections take place in Adjaria. Then we need to call for early elections to Adjaria's highest legislative body. In other words, we must ensure that a change of regime takes place in Adjaria and is brought to its successful end. We must restore the people's democratic rule in Adjaria and reimpose state control over the region. These two objectives will be pursued in parallel."

Our Adjaria has joined forces with a number of nongovernmental organizations in its fight against Abashidze. Among them is Kmara (Enough), the Georgian student group that spearheaded the street protests that led to Shevardnadze's resignation.

Shortly after the state of emergency was reimposed in Adjaria, Batumi police arrested a group of Kmara activists on charges of displaying posters hostile to Abashidze.

Three days ago, Our Adjaria activists attempted to raise the new Georgian flag -- in fact, that of Saakashvili's political party -- on public buildings throughout Adjaria. The initiative sparked clashes with police in some areas.

The Russian Foreign Ministry on 20 January expressed its concern at the situation in the region, condemning what it said were actions undertaken by "extremist forces" opposed to Abashidze.

Moscow -- which maintains troops in Batumi -- last month (9 December) eased visa restrictions for Adjaria residents. Georgia's new leaders at the time protested the Kremlin's decision, saying it was an attempt at undermining their fledgling rule and encouraging separatist trends in the southern Caucasus country.

Although Kmara and Our Adjaria deny any organized links with Georgia's National Movement, they are both suspected of being secretly sponsored by Saakashvili's power base. A number of Our Adjaria leaders belong to political parties that ran on a ticket with the National Movement in the 2 November parliamentary polls.

While claiming Kmara and Our Adjaria are plotting to undermine their rule, Adjar authorities have refrained from directly blaming the new Georgian leadership.

Adjaria's envoy to Tbilisi, Gamlet Chipashvili, tells RFE/RL he does not believe Georgia's central authorities are directly involved in the anti-Abashidze movement: "I think the Georgian government would be making a big mistake if it supported those kinds of organizations. Personally, I believe they do not support them. I don't think the current government could possibly support such undemocratic statements and actions. I've had several conversations with high-ranking representatives of the central authorities, and they have told me that they disapprove of the actions undertaken by [Our Adjaria], Kmara, and other such groups. I cannot say [the central government] supports or encourages these organizations."

On the surface, relations between Adjaria and Georgia's new leadership are more tense than they were under Shevardnadze's rule. Yet, both sides also have signaled their willingness to avoid confrontation and strike up a working relationship.

Georgian interim President Nino Burjanadze and State Minister Zurab Zhvania traveled to Batumi last month to try to find common ground with the Adjar leader. Saakashvili himself has repeatedly said he remains open to dialogue with Abashidze.

The Adjar leadership has also vowed to mend fences with Tbilisi. Georgian authorities last week (16 Jan) announced they had secretly raided a Batumi hospital to arrest former Georgian Railways head Akaki Chkhaidze on charges of embezzlement. Adjar Interior Minister Jemal Gogitidze reacted calmly, saying he is ready to cooperate with his Georgian counterpart and that there is no need to carry out covert operations.

Striking a similar note of indignation and conciliation, Adjar envoy Chipashvili claims Batumi is "ready for dialogue" with Kmara and Our Adjaria, but warns that police will prevent any "anticonstitutional" moves made by these two organizations.

Chipashvili also says he does not believe the Adjar leadership will bar Our Adjaria candidates from taking part in the 28 March election.

"So far, nobody has said anything against their participation, and I think there will be no objections [on the part of our leadership]. Besides, these people belong to [the network of the] National Movement, a party that is very popular nowadays. Therefore, I think they will be allowed to participate [in the upcoming polls]."

While agreeing on the need to obtain a change of regime in Batumi and restore central rule over Abashidze's fiefdom, Our Adjaria leaders seem at odds over how to achieve these goals.

In comments made earlier this week (20 January) to the Tbilisi-based "Prime News" news agency, Our Adjaria official Nato Imnadze said Abashidze would, in the coming days, face a "velvet revolution" similar to that which overthrew Shevardnadze.

The same day, another Our Adjaria leader, Kakha Mikeladze, predicted that Georgia would witness a change of regime in Batumi by the end of this month.

But Diasamidze says his group has no plans to stage street protests to force Abashidze out of office, like Saakashvili and his allies did with Shevardnadze.

"I would rule out any such scenario, be it now or in the future. I believe the support we enjoy in Adjaria makes it possible to bring our project to a successful end without any 'revolution.' Revolution, mass street protests and, so to speak, anarchy are not necessary. Our duty before the people [of Adjaria] is to proceed with polls and achieve a change of regime through these polls. I rule out any revolution or mass protest similar to what happened in Tbilisi. There are other factors [that] make Adjaria a little bit different [from Tbilisi], and we must take them into consideration. We must choose another path to reach our objectives."

Diasamidze did not elaborate on his motives for rejecting a Tbilisi-like scenario, although he suggested Abashidze might not leave power as easily as Shevardnadze did. Some Georgian political experts speculate the Adjar leader would not hesitate to use force to preserve his power. Others believe the presence of hundreds of Russian troops in Batumi makes the situation there much less manageable than in the Georgian capital.