Regions and territories: Ajaria

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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 May, 2004, 10:23 GMT 11:23 UK

Regions and territories: Ajaria

A mountainous semi-autonomous region of Georgia, Ajaria is situated on the
Black Sea coast on Georgia’s southwestern border with Turkey.

Its narrow band of coastal lowland has a lush sub-tropical climate while
high in the mountains there can be snow for six months of the year.


The port in the capital, Batumi, is used for the shipment of oil from
Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Its oil refinery handles Caspian oil from
Azerbaijan which arrives by pipeline to Supsa port and is transported from
there to Batumi by rail.

Batumi is also an important gateway for the shipment of goods heading into
Georgia, Azerbaijan and landlocked Armenia. The Ajarian capital is a centre
for shipbuilding and manufacturing. Ajaria has good land for growing tea,
citrus fruits and tobacco.


The people of Ajaria are ethnically Georgian and the region also has a
substantial Russian-speaking population. Under Ottoman rule from the 17th
until the 19th century Islam predominated. The word Ajarian came to mean a
Georgian Muslim.

In 1878 Ajaria was annexed by Russia and, following the Bolshevik
revolution, incorporated into Georgia as an autonomous republic within the
USSR. Under Stalin, Islam, like Christianity, was ruthlessly repressed.
Nowadays about half the population professes the Islamic faith.

Tensions erupt on the internal border between Georgia and Ajaria
Unlike the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Ajaria has been
spared major violence and ethnic unrest since Georgia became independent
after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The region was led between 1991 and May 2004 by Aslan Abashidze under whose
tight control it enjoyed political stability and relative economic
prosperity. Election results gave him at least 90% of the vote every time
and he ruled in what many observers described as an autocratic style.


Ajaria achieved a substantial degree of autonomy from Tbilisi, which accused
it of failing to pay a large proportion of the sum due in tax and customs
duties. It also had its own security and interior ministries which were
under the full control of the Ajarian leadership.

After Eduard Shevardnadze was overthrown as Georgian president and the
results of the November 2003 elections were annulled, a state of emergency
was declared in Ajaria. Its leadership refused to recognise the full
authority of Mikhail Saakashvili as Georgian president.

Mr Saakashvili wanted to reassert control, abolish the Ajarian security
ministry and end what he said was corruption in the Ajarian tax and customs

Standoff with Georgia

In a bid to assert his authority after he was prevented from entering Ajaria
in the run-up to the March 2004 elections, the Georgian president imposed an
economic blockade. It was lifted within days after talks between Mr
Saakashvili and Mr Abashidze.

However, the standoff grew increasingly ominous. In early May, Mr Abashidze
claimed that Georgian forces were preparing to invade. His forces blew up
bridges connecting the region with the rest of Georgia and pulled up rail
tracks, disrupting exports of Caspian oil from the port of Batumi.
Immediately afterwards, Mr Saakashvili gave the Ajarian leader 10 days in
which to comply with the Georgian constitution and start disarming or face

The Georgian president imposed direct rule on Ajaria on 5 May. Subsequently,
after talks with a Russian envoy, Mr Abashidze resigned and left the region.

Ties with Russia

Ajaria maintained close ties with Russia, which has a military base there –
a source of great tension with Tbilisi. Following the departure of Eduard
Shevardnadze, this tension rose still further when Russia eased entry visa
regulations for residents of Ajaria.

Developments unfolded under Moscow’s watchful eye. Russia had warned Tbilisi
that the use of force to resolve the situation would have “catastrophic


Status: Autonomous region within Georgia
Population: 400,000
Capital: Batumi
Major languages: Georgian, Russian
Major religions: Islam, Christianity
Natural resources: Citrus fruit, tobacco, tea
Industry: Oil refining, shipping, manufacturing, wine-making


Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili imposed direct presidential control
over the region on 5 May 2004. Hours later the Ajarian leader Aslan
Abashidze resigned, ending more than a decade in power by flying, with his
family, to Russia.

Georgian officials appointed an interim administration to run the region
pending elections in June and abolished the post of Ajarian leader.

Aslan Abashidze, a teacher turned Communist bureaucrat in the Soviet era,
was appointed leader in Ajaria by Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia
following the collapse of the Soviet Union and Georgian independence. He
proved remarkably adept at establishing absolute control.

Former Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze

Mr Abashidze was born in Batumi in 1938 into a family which has been
influential in Ajarian affairs for many years. Observers often described his
style of leadership as autocratic. Ajarian election results had always given
him 90% or more of the vote.

A family affair

All opposition was suppressed and the economic reins were firmly in his
hands. Close relatives of his late wife headed the important security and
interior ministries, and other relatives also held public office.

Mr Abashidze also played a prominent role in Georgian political affairs
outside Ajaria. He was leader of the Revival of Georgia political bloc which
was the main rival of Eduard Shevardnadze’s party in parliamentary elections
in 1999. He at first stood as a candidate in the Georgian presidential
elections of 2000 but withdrew, leaving victory in Mr Shevardnadze’s grasp.

When mass protests erupted over the conduct of the November 2003
parliamentary elections in Georgia, in which the Ajarian leader claimed 95%
of the regional vote, Mr Abashidze rallied to Mr Shevardnadze’ support. He
denounced Mr Shevardnadze’s overthrow as a coup and declared a state of
emergency in Ajaria.

Differences with Tbilisi

The pro-Western Mr Saakashvili insisted that the Russians pull out of their
base in Ajaria. The pro-Russian Mr Abashidze took a different view. Mr
Saakashvili vowed to bring Ajaria into the Georgian mainstream and eradicate
corruption and nepotism.

Mr Abashidze insisted he simply wished to retain the status quo and did not
want Ajaria to secede from Georgia. He had indicated that military force
remained an option should Mr Saakashvili try to enforce his wishes.

Despite what appeared to be frequent tensions between former President
Shevardnadze and Mr Abashidze, the two always managed to come to some
arrangement in the end.


The Ajarian authorities operate TV and radio networks in the region.

Reporters Without Borders, the media rights body, reported in 2004 that two
private Georgian TV stations had been banned from operating in Ajaria. It
added that five journalists had been physically assaulted.


Adjara TV – operated by Ajarian authorities
Channel 25 – private

Radio Adjara – operated by Ajarian authorities