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Can Saakashvili Repeat Adjar Success?


(Washington DC--May 25, 2004) While Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili was able to peacefully return the autonomous region of Adjara to central government control, the events in Adjara should not be considered "the model for resolution" with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, according to Cory Welt, a visiting fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Welt told an RFE/RL audience last week that Saakashvili's success in Adjara merely "sets the stage" for resolving those longstanding challenges to the central government in Tbilisi.

Welt said that it was not surprising that Saakashvili, who was elected on a democratic reform platform, would move to reincorporate "lost territories" such as Adjara, both because a major port and oil terminal in Adjara would benefit the Georgian economy and because "Saakashvili's own ideology called for mobilizing people" to democratic action. Former Adjaran leader Aslan Abashidze, who called himself a "native Georgian," had grown increasingly despotic over time and Saakashvili's credibility as a reformer would be questioned if Abashidze was allowed to rule Adjara as a modern-day feudal lord.

Saakashvili's efforts to oust Abashidze, Welt said, proved successful for several reasons. First, Saakashvili defined the confrontation as a "legal and administrative" issue, never allowing it to become "ethnic." He also set "specific, sensible objectives" that gave Abashidze the option of remaining in power until the next elections, according to Welt, while ensuring that democratic forces could strengthen in the region by demanding that Abashidze "stop the terrorization of journalists and political opponents, respect human rights, and disarm civilian supporters." Additionally, once Abashidze moved against the central government, Saakashvili gave members of the Adjaran leadership, particularly military officers, the opportunity to defect, giving them amnesty if they abandoned Abashidze. Whether intended or not, Welt said, Saakashvili also seemed to apply sufficient psychological pressure against Abashidze to force the issue, by having the Georgian army and navy conduct military exercises just outside of Adjara's borders.

Welt noted that Saakashvili's government was concerned about how Russian forces still based in Adjara and elsewhere in Georgia would react to his efforts, since Russia's government seemed to approve of keeping Georgia in "four units with a weak central government." But, as the Abashidze regime collapsed, the Kremlin kept "quiet," and allowed Abashidze to go into exile in Moscow. The United States, on the other hand, offered early support to Saakashvili by accusing Abashidze of "disrupting key international transport links" when he blew up three bridges leading to Georgia.

After the collapse of the Abashidze regime, Saakashvili "kept his promises," Welt said, to preserve Adjaran autonomy by allowing the region to retain its own police force and to collect local taxes. All barriers to transport between Adjara and the rest of Georgia have also been removed. The central government controls defense, state security, the port and customs.

Adjara is no longer a separatist threat, Welt said, allowing Saakashvili's government to seek solutions to its disputes with separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Welt said that one of the scenarios discussed by the Saakashvili government for resolving the disputes could be to establish a "federal state divided into two separate units--Georgia and Abkhazia, each with equal power" under a plan that might even win the approval of the Russian government.

RFE/RL's Georgian Service broadcasts three hours of programming a day to Georgia, produced in Prague and the service's Tbilisi Bureau and transmitted to listeners via shortwave and AM and FM signals provided by local affiliate stations. Georgian Service programming is also available via the Internet, at the service's website www.tavisupleba.org and at www.rferl.org.

To hear archived audio for this and other RFE/RL briefings and events, please visit our website at www.regionalanalysis.org.
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