Adzharia: All Quiet for Now

Moscow Times, Russia
March 23 2004

Adzharia: All Quiet for Now

By Pavel Felgenhauer

After six days of high tension, the confrontation between the
authorities in Tbilisi and the autonomous republic of Adzharia ended
after face-to-face talks in Batumi between Georgian President Mikheil
Saakashvili and Adzharian leader Aslan Abashidze.

The settlement involved an apparent climb down by Abashidze, who
pledged to allow opposition political activity in his strictly
controlled fiefdom, as well as a possible sharing of control of
Batumi port and its customs revenues with Tbilisi. In return,
Saakashvili announced the lifting of an economic blockade imposed on
Adzharia last week.

As Georgia’s biggest seaport, Batumi is also used by landlocked
Armenia, whose borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey have been closed to
any traffic since 1991, as one of its main outlets to the outside
world. During his years as the sole, absolute ruler of Adzharia,
Abashidze has privatized the Batumi port and its customs service.

The income from the Batumi port and customs has allowed Abashidze to
equip a large private army — and to wine, dine and pay bribes to
various Russian military and civilian officials.

During the rule of Saakashvili’s predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze,
Abashidze formed a political party called “Vozrozhdenie,” and clearly
harbored ambitions to eventually take over in Tbilisi. But the fall
of Shevardnadze in November’s “Rose Revolution” catapulted
Saakashvili to power in Tbilisi and dashed Abashidze’s hopes. Since
then, the Adzharian leader has openly opposed Saakashvili, obviously
worried that he might lose control of his fiefdom.

Russia has maintained a military garrison in Batumi since Soviet
times and the port has been used to supply other Russian bases in
Georgia and Armenia. In 1999, during an OSCE summit in Istanbul,
Russia promised to close its bases in Georgia by January 2004. This
deadline has passed and now Russia says it needs 11 more years and
some half a billion dollars to complete withdrawal.

Courtesy of Abashidze, Russia for the past decade could move men and
military equipment through Batumi without asking Tbilisi. The
Adzharian tangle involves the military, political and economic
interests of Russia, Turkey and the West (as a major oil pipeline is
being built in the region to bring Caspian oil to the world market).

Last week, Abashidze’s gunmen prevented Saakashvili from entering
Adzharian territory. Later Abashidze announced that Georgian
government forces were planning the imminent invasion of Adzharia and
demanded the Russian military’s help.

It soon transpired that Tbilisi was not actually planning an
immediate invasion and that there were in fact no forces amassed on
the Adzharian border. Apparently Abashidze hoped to provoke
Saakashvili into military action by personally insulting him. But
Saakashvili, after some tough talk, under diplomatic pressure from
Washington and Moscow, decided to use economic pressure instead. The
Georgian navy began stopping foreign ships from reaching Batumi. A
blockade of Adzharia, if strictly imposed, could cause economic
disaster in the entire region.

Last week, the crisis in Adzharia also caused a commotion in and
around the Kremlin. Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov went to Batumi to
“defend his brother” Abashidze. A foreign policy official close to
Vladimir Putin told me that Luzhkov’s move was not viewed favorably
in the Kremlin, though it was decided not to publicly disavow him.

I was told that Abashidze was influenced by a group of aggressive
generals, led by a former Russian defense minister. But by last
Friday a decision was taken in the Kremlin to put serious pressure on
Abashidze to stop causing trouble. I was also told that during the
crisis Saakashvili had behaved well, in line with his promises to
Putin during their recent meeting in the Kremlin.

It all ended well: Saakashvili finally visited Adzharia and displayed
personal valor in facing crowds of Abashidze gunmen. It was proven
that a large part of the Adzharian population in fact support
Saakashvili. But if Saakashvili, in the future, actually tries to
oust the Abashidze clan, an armed conflict may still unfold.

What is even more troubling is the incoherence of our policy in the
Caucasus (and in many other places). Putin, receiving advice from
different factions, constantly changes his opinion. Strange groups of
corrupt adventurers often succeed in hijacking foreign, defense and
national security decision-making to meet their specific needs, while
Russia’s true national interests are ignored.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.