asiaNet Eurasia Insight
Some 400,000 people and 80 different nationalities and ethnic groups--including Georgians, Armenians, Assyrians, Russians, Ukrainians, Greeks, and Jews--live between Ajara's mountainous highlands and subtropical lowlands. Still, it has maintained its reputation as the country's peaceful oasis.
Georgia lost most of its main sea ports and resorts after a secessionist war over the Black Sea province of Abkhazia in 1992. A bloody conflict took the lives of some 20,000 people, and separatists drove over 200,000 ethnic Georgians out of the province. As a result, Ajara has replaced Abkhazia as the most-favored tourism destination for Georgians. Thanks largely to the boost in tourists, Ajara has managed to survive what has been a worsening picture of economic depression since Georgia's independence.
The autonomous republic of Ajara was formed by the 1921 Khars agreement between Russia and Turkey. Under the agreement, Turkey recognized Ajara as a part of the Soviet Republic of Georgia, and Georgia agreed to honor Ajara's autonomy. Predominantly Muslim, Ajara was granted that status based on religious, rather than ethnic, identification. The Soviets incorporated the republic into their own economy, and local income was based largely on the sale of citrus and tea on the Soviet market.
Today, many Ajarians live off the land alone, growing small plots of fruits and vegetables on land where once-flourishing plantations were the mainstay. The kolkhoz, or collective, system of farming was dismantled after the fall of the Soviet Union, but was not replaced with a more coherent method. Land was redistributed, and families were given an average of 800 square meters of land to farm--just enough to keep a family fed, but too little to produce enough to sell.
The rest of the population takes advantage of the tourism industry and the close proximity of Turkey. Ajarians pay $30 for a visa to cross the Turkish border and return with goods to resell in Ajarian markets.
The Batumi Bazaar, in the republic's capital, is one of the area's most lively places. Here, local traders tout imported and home-grown foods: grains, vegetable oil, and spaghetti from Turkey; potatoes from eastern Georgia; fruits from western Georgia; and Western-brand cigarettes, both imported and smuggled. Children, as young as eight line the streets, selling lemonade.
The road that leads to Batumi is lined with eucalyptus trees and quaint houses with gardens. Closer to the city, the houses give way to Soviet-era apartment blocks, and only the city center holds any architectural clues to the Byzantine and Persian Batumi of old.
The apartment blocks serve as home for many former sailors--the majority of whom have been out of work since the early 1990s. During Soviet times, the port city of Batumi was an important oil refining center. Oil was transported by rail from the Azeri capital of Baku to the Batumi Oil Factory, refined, and then shipped from the Batumi Trading Port. Today, the oil factory operates at only 10 percent of its capacity, transporting Chevron oil from the Caspian Sea. And the port, though still one of Georgia's most stable and profitable enterprises, operates at only 60 percent of its capacity.
For the tourists, the masses of unemployed and the struggling port are offset by long stretches of beautiful beaches and a city center full of luxury hotels, European-style cafes, and expensive cars. For natives of Ajara, however, these luxuries represent the corrupt forces governing their republic. Most things worth owning in Ajara are in some way connected to Ajarian President Aslan Abashidze and his family.
The economic structure in Ajara is no different from that in the rest of Georgia. While the political-financial clan of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze rules in Tbilisi, Abashidze's family rules in Ajara. Though a part of Georgia, Ajara, under Abashidze's leadership since 1991, has effectively blackmailed the central government, giving Abashidze full control over his small kingdom.
In the mid-1990s, political tensions between Ajara and Tbilisi were at their height, with the Georgian government fearing the republic would become another Abkhazia. Ajara proved less antagonistic, however, and a relative peace with Tbilisi has held since early this year. Still, Abashidze refuses to visit Tbilisi, saying he fears for his life, and Shevardnadze must visit Ajara if he has any important business to discuss with the autonomous government.
In addition, differing ideas of foreign policy, have continued to be a point of contention between the two cities. Tbilisi has taken a Western orientation, calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops and clamoring to be a NATO ally, as well as solidifying its membership in the Council of Europe. Ajara has preferred to stay close to its Russian allies, and Russian frontier troops remain on Ajarian soil as the support system for Abashidze's regime. Tensions are expected to mount next year when NATO forces hold scheduled military exercises at the Gonio military base a few kilometers south of Batumi.
But for now, Georgians and a handful of foreign tourists continue to sun themselves on Batumi's beaches, locals continue to flood Turkish borders for goods to resell in an attempt to survive, and former sailors continue to pine for the days when Batumi was a thriving port city, offering employment.
Dima Bit-Suleiman is TOL's stringer