Georgia: Tensions Continue To Rise Between Central Gov. And Adjaria

Feature Article
Tuesday, 04 May 2004

Georgia: Tensions Continue To Rise Between Central Government And Adjaria

By Jeremy Bransten

Violent clashes broke out in Adjaria today as the head of the renegade
Georgian region, Aslan Abashidze, warned that the situation could
explode into a full-blown conflict. Abashidze defended his decision to
blow up bridges linking his region to the rest of Georgia as a
defensive measure against an anticipated offensive from
Tbilisi. Meanwhile, in the capital, Georgian President Mikheil
Saakashvili called on Russia to restrain some of its military
personnel, who he claimed were helping the Adjar authorities in their

Prague, 4 May 2004 (RFE/RL) — Violent clashes erupted in the streets
of Adjaria’s capital of Batumi today, as security forces loyal to
Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze beat back hundreds of protestors with
truncheons and water cannons.

Reports from Batumi say crowds opposed to Abashidze’s policies took to
the streets in separate protests that were violently dispersed by the
security forces.

The demonstrations took place shortly after Abashidze declared a state
of emergency and a curfew in the region and closed all secondary
schools and universities for two weeks. One protestor, who gave his
first name as Achiko, described today’s events.

“They [security forces] were beating people on the head. I saw people
with bleeding heads and some were nearly unconscious. I saw some women
with blood on their faces. After they dispersed our demonstration,
these madmen [security forces] went to the offices of the ‘Our
Adjaria’ [opposition] movement and demolished everything. Not a single
window was left unbroken. The situation in Batumi remains very tense,”
he said.

Another protestor, teacher Khatuna Tavdigiridze, who took part in a
related demonstration, gave her version of events: “We had just
organized a street march and the police tried to block our way. But
then we started a rally in a school next to the university and the
police tried twice to disperse that meeting. They were able to
disperse us into several groups and my group joined a protest
organized by university teachers. One hour later, we saw people from
the special forces and a fire truck, and they used water cannons
[against the protesters].”

Today’s protesters are another sign of the escalation of tensions
around Adjaria and its rebellious leader. Abashidze today appeared on
local television to defend his decision on 2 May to blow up bridges,
including a rail line, connecting Adjaria to the rest of
Georgia. Abashidze said he undertook the move as a defensive measure
to avoid a Georgian military offensive.

Saakashvili, in the opinion of most analysts, cannot afford to back
down in this test of wills without endangering his own hold on
power.In Tbilisi, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili condemned the
move and he accused retired Russian Major General Yurii Netkachov of
being behind the operation. While being careful not to directly blame
Moscow for the bridge explosions, Saakashvili called on the Russian
authorities to do everything in their power to stop Netkachov from
acting to destabilize the situation even further.

Abashidze has long counted prominent Russian officials among his
friends. But according to Robert Parsons, director of RFE/RL’s
Georgian Service, Moscow’s leverage may be limited in this particular
crisis, especially if Abashidze — feeling threatened by Saakshvili’s
drive to reimpose central authority — feels war is the best way for
him to preserve his personal power. And although relations between
Tbilisi and Moscow are improving, Saakashvili will likely be reluctant
to accept Russia’s mediation efforts, if offered.

“Russia certainly does have leverage with Adjaria, in particular with
Aslan Abashidze. Traditionally, he’s had close ties with certain
sections inside the Russian military and with a number of businessmen
and also the mayor of Moscow, Yurii Luzhkov. These are people who
certainly have influence and certainly they’re interested in a
peaceful resolution of the situation in Adjaria. It’s a different
matter, though, whether the Russians now will be prepared or willing
or able even to persuade Aslan Abashidze to back down. Certainly it’s
unlikely that they’re prepared to use the Russian military forces that
are in Batumi at the moment — about 2,000 men in the garrison there,”
Parsons said.

Parsons noted that Abashidze’s decision to cut road and rail links
with the rest of Georgia significantly aggravates the situation. If
the links are not restored soon, the economic impact for the region as
a whole could be grave.

“The cutting of the road links and the cutting of the rail links are
critically important for everybody in the region, not just for the
Georgians but also the Armenians as well. Armenia is dependent on the
port of Batumi for imports and exports. Without it, the situation in
Armenia, which is critical enough as it is, could become
catastrophic. In Georgia, too, the incipient economic recovery of the
last few months could well be jeopardized if this standoff between
Adjaria and the central authorities is allowed to continue,” Parsons

Saakashvili now finds himself in a very difficult position. Since
coming to power, he has staked his reputation on reimposing law and
order throughout the country and issued a series of ultimatums to
Abashidze, who continues to flout his authority.

Saakashvili, in the opinion of most analysts, cannot afford to back
down in this test of wills without endangering his own hold on
power. Although today’s demonstrations in Batumi are clear evidence of
opposition in the region to Abashidze’s authoritarian rule, Parsons
does not believe Adjaria’s leader will be toppled from within.

“I think at the moment the opposition in Adjaria is not strong enough
to depose Aslan Abashidze from within. He has ruled the province by
fear for the last few years and that still is a very potent force for
him in Adjaria. Some people have been protesting, we’ve seen it on the
streets today and they’ve paid a heavy price. A lot of them have been
beaten, we’ve seen pictures of bloodshed on the streets of Batumi
today. It’s unlikely I think that the people of Adjaria will rise
against Aslan Abashidze to try and overthrow him,” Parsons said.

Ironically, unlike the other separatist conflicts that have rocked
Georgia in recent years, Adjaria’s rebellion is not fueled by ethnic
or religious motives, according to Parsons. “There is no ethnic
component to the situation in Adjaria,” he said. “Approximately 90
percent of the population is composed of ethnic Georgians. The
remainder are a mix of Armenians, Russians, Greeks, and others. There
is a minor religious factor in that a relatively large minority of the
population are Muslims. Traditionally, this has been a Muslim part of
Georgia. However, these days, the greater part of the population is
either atheist or Christian.”

The future of Georgia now appears to be in the hands of two
strong-willed and angry leaders — Mikheil Saakashvili and Aslan
Abashidze, with few venturing to predict how the crisis will end.

(RFE/RL’s Georgian Service contributed to this report.)
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty © 2004 RFE/RL, Inc. All Rights Reserved.