Georgia strives to burnish image amid Ajaria crisis

Eurasianet Organization
April 28 2004

Alex van Oss: 4/28/04

Amid a constitutional crisis involving the renegade region of Ajaria,
Georgian leaders have waged a diplomatic offensive to bolster
Georgia’s international image. In the United States, Georgian Prime
Minister Zurab Zhvania has touted his government as “one of the most
competent” in the former Soviet Union. Meanwhile, President Mikheil
Saakashvili was promoting trade ties during a tour of Ukraine and

Since the Soviet collapse in 1991, Georgia has been riven by civil
strife and economic dysfunction. [For additional information see the
Eurasia Insight archive]. At a public appearance in Washington on
April 26, Zhvania emphasized that with Saakashvili’s reform-minded
administration in place, Georgia should no longer be viewed as a
“failed state.” Since January, Georgia has made great strides in
curbing corruption, long seen as the single most daunting obstacle to
Georgia’s stabilization, Zhvania maintained.

“Formerly untouchable gangsters are now in prison, so people now have
physical security. This is just a beginning,” Zhvania said during the
appearance, sponsored by the Center for International and Strategic
Studies. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. “The
Minister of Finance [Zurab Nogaideli] has put an end to absolute
chaos…and, for the first time in Georgia’s history, is paying
refugees their pensions without a single day of delay – though, of
course, these pensions are still miserably low.”

Progress in the battle against corruption is making Georgia a safer
investment risk, Zhvania contended.

“Georgia’s energy sector was unbelievably corrupt,” he said. “They
[energy-sector officials] had ways of seizing money that were almost
state-of-the-art. … Our current interior minister [Giorgi
Baramidze], though only 29, is the most competent we’ve ever had.
Already, he has a 16-month plan in place to reconstruct and make the
energy sector more attractive for investment.”

Zhvania suggested that Georgia was now in position to promote
stabilization in the broader Caucasus region, adding that Tbilisi
could potentially help foster the normalization of relations between
Armenia and Azerbaijan. He added that during recent visits to
Azerbaijan and Armenia, Saakashvili had been “inspired by the
increased pragmatism” shown by the leaders of those nations, along
with a new sense that “all three countries live in one region.” There
had even been requests, Zhvania said, for Georgia to serve as a venue
for regular discussions on improving regional cooperation.

The uncertainty surrounding the Ajaria issue clouded Zhvania’s
generally sunny assessment of Georgian stabilization efforts.
Saakashvili’s efforts to restore the central government’s authority
in all of the country’s constituent entities have brought Tbilisi to
the brink of armed confrontation with Ajaria on several occasions in
recent months. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Tbilisi-Batumi tension is once again spiking. On April 28, Ajarian
leader Aslan Abashidze confirmed that armed forces loyal to his
regional authority had been mobilized to repel a potential attack by
Tbilisi. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Zhvania said the Ajaria issue was “not a dispute between Georgia’s
central and regional governments, or between Saakashvili and
Abashidze. It is Georgia’s attempt to restore democracy.” He insisted
that Abashidze has steadfastly refused to act within Georgia’s new
democratic framework, going on to recount a conversation he had with
Abashidze earlier in April. “I offered to [Abashidze] that if he
began a general disarmament, he could keep a small force for personal
security and stay in office to the end of his elected term. But he
must stop attacking people and journalists,” Zhvania said. “He
refused even to talk about it.”

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, Saakashvili indicated that the Ajaria issue
would be resolved quickly. “Aslan Abashidze has no chance,” Imedi TV
quoted Saakashvili as saying April 27. “The time for such people is
over. I think that gradually – not gradually but very soon –
everything will be settled.”

Saakashvili has been away from Georgia during most of the recent
crisis. On April 28 he arrived in Poland, following a three-day stay
in Ukraine. His tour has so far been devoted to boosting commerce. In
Kiev, Saakashvili took action to encourage free trade between Georgia
and Ukraine.

Georgian officials insist that they have no plans to use force to
resolve the Ajaria standoff. In Washington, Zhvania called on the
United States and Russia to exert pressure on Abashidze to
“compromise.” According to White House spokesman Scott McClellan, US
President George W. Bush discussed Georgian domestic developments
with Russian leader Vladimir Putin during an April 26 conversation.

Russian leaders have tended to view Saakashvili’s administration as
the aggressor in the Tbilisi-Batumi standoff. On April 28, the
Russian Duma adopted a statement that expressed concern over the
recent escalation of tension, the Civil Georgia web site reported.
“We have all reasons to suppose that Tbilisi plans to use force for
the conflict resolution,” the Duma statement said. It went on to
recognize that the Ajaria matter was an “internal affair,” but it
stressed that the issue had the potential to adversely impact Russian
national security.

During face-to-face discussions April 27, top Bush administration
officials reportedly pressed Zhvania for assurances that Tbilisi
would do everything possible to avoid violence in Ajaria, Civil
Georgia reported. “Everybody understands that presence of illegal
armed groups in one of Georgia’s regions is inadmissible and the
problem should be solved once and forever through peaceful means,”
Zurab Zhvania told Georgian reporters just before holding talks with
US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Editor’s Note: Alex van Oss is a freelance journalist based in
Washington, DC.