Moscow Times, Russia
March 16 2004
Adzharia Needs Cool Heads
By Pavel Felgenhauer
The day after being re-elected President Vladimir Putin faced a
serious crisis in Georgia, involving Russian interests and Russian
troops. A long-simmering confrontation between the Georgian
government, now led by President Mikheil Saakashvili, and the tiny
autonomous Adzharian Republic in southwest Georgia seems to be edging
towards an armed confrontation.
Moscow has supported the separatist leaders of autonomous republics
in Georgia since the country became independent. During an armed
confrontation in South Ossetia in 1991-92, and a war in Abkhazia in
1992-93, the Russian military supplied separatists in both regions
with arms and munitions, and provided them with artillery and air
Officially the Russian authorities never acknowledged these facts,
but in private Defense Ministry officials admitted the high level of
Russian involvement. In 1994 in Abkhazia, a Russian Hind Mi-24 attack
helicopter pilot said, “In 1993, we were given orders to cover the
Russian insignia of our aircraft with dirt. We did bomb the
The Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts ended with the Georgians
defeated and cease-fires brokered by Moscow. Russian troops were
deployed to ensure that these regions stayed separate from Georgia.
Constant low-level guerrilla warfare has since continued on the
Abkhaz-Georgian cease-fire line, while South Ossetia has been
There are no proper border guards or customs posts on the Georgian
side of South Ossetia, because Tbilisi regards the area as part of
its sovereign territory. This has facilitated a massive trade in
contraband going through the Rokhsky tunnel highway connecting South
Ossetia in Georgia and North Ossetia in Russia. The North Ossetian
authorities, who believe South Ossetia to be an integral part of the
Ossetian nation, allow more or less free transit of goods and people
at the northern end of the tunnel without proper visas or customs
The Ossetians (unlike most North Caucasian nationalities) are
Christians and have historically been enemies of the Muslim Chechens
and Ingush. But while the Ossetians have strongly supported the
Russian war in Chechnya, most foreign volunteers (or mercenaries, as
the Russian authorities call them) reach Chechnya through Georgia and
then through Ossetia and the Rokhsky tunnel — through a hole in the
border Moscow itself helped create.
All attempts at a political solution to the separatist problems of
Georgia have failed during the last decade and now Adzharia is also
becoming an issue. While wars ravaged Abkhazia and South Ossetia,
civil war raged inside Georgia proper and hundreds of thousands of
ethnic Georgians were evicted from Abkhazia, Adzharia was peaceful.
The local population considers itself Georgian and does not aspire to
independence, though under centuries of Turkish rule most were
converted to Islam. Adzharia has been ruled by Aslan Abashidze, the
scion of a dynasty of princes that were the traditional rulers of
Adzharia for centuries.
While Tbilisi has often been in conflict with Moscow over the last
decade, Abashidze developed a good relationship with the Russian
military and the authorities in Moscow. The Russian military keep a
garrison in the Adzharian capital, Batumi — the rundown remains of a
Soviet motorized rifle division, now just over 3,000 men (mostly
local Adzharian recruits) and a couple of hundred pieces of heavy
equipment (tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery). Batumi
port, fully controlled by Abashidze, is used to supply other Russian
troops in Georgia and Armenia.
Moscow also fostered Abashidze as a possible pro-Moscow Georgian
national leader to replace Eduard Shevardnadze. The sudden rise to
power of Saakashvili foiled the ambitions of the nationalist siloviki
clan in the Kremlin to install “our man” in Tbilisi, and has put
Abashidze’s future in jeopardy.
This week Abashidze’s private army barred Saakashvili from entering
Adzharia. Saakashvili, in turn, demanded that Abashidze’s forces lay
down their arms and that control of Batumi port and customs be handed
over to Tbilisi. Over the coming days, Putin must act promptly to
stop Abashidze and his allies in Moscow provoking an armed conflict,
while also pressing Saakashvili to refrain from drastic action.
A war in Adzharia and the consequent destabilization of Georgia are
not in Russia’s national interests, a fact that some of Putin’s
cohorts do not seem to understand.
Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.