Western observers are alarmed to see Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze, an aging autocrat, making diplomatic trips to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia after helping Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze claim victory in recent disputed elections. Shevardnadze seems to be positioning Abashidze as his representative and proxy, while trying to remain above the increasingly contentious electoral fray. But this strategy may backfire.
Abashidze has ruled the Ajaria Autonomous Republic, a small territory on the Black Sea coast, since 1990. He managed to preserve remarkable stability in the region during the bloody 1990s, but did so primarily via intolerance and repressive tactics. In his new alliance with Shevardnadze, which gained dramatic scale when the president left thousands of protestors in central Tbilisi to visit Batumi, Ajaria's capital, Abashidze appears to have gained a remarkable amount of clout. Shevardnadze said his consultations with the Ajarian strongman involved "Georgia as a whole," and Abashidze then embarked on an unprecedented frenzy of foreign diplomacy. He met in confidential session with top officials in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia in three consecutive days. These visits led to speculation that Shevardnadze was granting Abashidze more power than he cared to admit.
Ghia Nodia, director of the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, calls Shevardnadze's deployment of the Ajarian leader "a political trick" on the opposition. With his anti-democratic track record, Nodia argues, Abashidze is a good decoy to divert opposition fire. Indeed, he has a history of personal animosity with current opposition leaders Zurab Zhvania of the United Democrats and Mikhail Saakashvili of the National Movement, whom he accused of masterminding the assassination attempt against Shevardnadze in 1998. (Both men were allied with Shevardnadze at the time.)
Despite Ajaria's long being pointed to as a Shevardnadze success story in terms of Georgia's territorial integrity since it has not attempted to secede as have other independence-minded regions, such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia Abashidze's resurgence nonetheless triggers fears of civil conflict. As noted, Abashidze's Revival party reported an implausible 95 percent turnout and 95 percent margin of victory on November 2, making the party the largest delegation in parliament if the results stand. This came amid flagrant electoral fraud. [For background see the EurasiaNet Insight archive]. Zeyno Baran, Director for International Security and Energy Programs at the Nixon Center, has argued that Abashidze has been "blackmailing the government: award his party the victory, or he will declare his region's independence from Georgia." A concerted secession campaign could escalate into violence, in Ajaria and possibly Georgia's other breakaway provinces. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The opposition is wary of such an outcome. On November 11, Saakashvili suggested that Shevardnadze and Abashidze were "masterminding conspiracy against Georgia." He speculated they "might use the Russian military forces deployed in Armenia and Batumi [Ajaria] to provoke civil confrontation in Georgia."
Is this what Abashidze discussed on his trip around the Caucasus? Experts say that he likely told Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev both of whom prevailed earlier in 2003 in elections widely castigated as unfair that only Shevardnadze can protect Azeri and Armenian ethnic minorities in Georgia. In this message, he presumably painted the opposition as a dangerous nationalist force, hoping to convince envoys from Yerevan and Baku to try to prevent opposition activism in Azeri-populated Kvemo Kartli and Armenian-dominated Samtskhe-Javakheti. This could create an opposition-free southern underbelly of Georgia, fortified by Ajaria at its westernmost corner. It would confine the opposition primarily to Tbilisi, and increase Abashidze's role on a national stage, at least until the crisis wanes.
Nodia argues that such an arrangement could subtly reflect Shevardnadze's master plan to stay in power while paying lip service to democratic processes. "If the new Parliament is convened despite the opposition's demand to cancel the results, Abashidze may be elected Chairman," he reckons, with support from Revival and Shevardnadze's For a New Georgia bloc. Despite the apparent attractiveness of such a deal for the Ajarian leader, if Shevardnadze indeed made such an offer, he may have lured Abashidze into accepting a poisoned chalice.
According to the Georgian constitution, the head of Parliament succeeds the president if he cannot fulfill his duties or steps down. Nodia says "it would be extremely unpopular for most Georgians to see Abashidze, or his close associate, as an acting president of Georgia." Shevardnadze could then engage in a balancing act, holding out an implicit threat of Abashidze's rise to prominence to stall the opposition, while simultaneously keeping Abashidze in check by threatening to withdraw presidential favor. In spring 2001, Shevardnadze used the same political trick against Zhvania, then the parliamentary chairman. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
For now, Abashidze has little reason to bridle. For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, he has become a regional envoy of Shevardnadze in Armenia, Azerbaijan and, importantly, Russia. This gives him a chance to promote himself as a power broker in Russia's eyes. He has also shorn up his own power base, in the midst of Georgia's political crisis, by steering his puppet-parliament into giving him supreme military command over Ajaria. This decree flouts the Georgian Constitution, which does not allow Ajaria to maintain a military, but Shevardnadze has taken the gamble that Abashidze will be so content with his lot that he will not undertake any military antics.
But gamesmanship became dangerous when Abashidze went to Russia. Curiously, Abashidze visited Armenia while Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov was also there. Ivanov has dismissed claims that the Russian military may intervene in Georgia affairs as "delirious nonsense." He did, however, say that Moscow's troops in Georgia may use force "if attacked." The military bases in Batumi and Akhalkalaki are thus implicitly fortifying anti-opposition policies.
By using the autocratic Abashidze as a link to Russia, Shevardnadze plays a dangerous game. He risks making the opposition look statesmanlike by refusing to bow to a known strongman. This could make the opposition's demands all the more uncompromising and further polarize the situation. Indeed, Saakashvili stated on November 14 that following Abashidze's involvement, it made "no sense" to negotiate with Shevardnadze and demanded the president's resignation.
If Shevardnadze weathers the crisis, he may be so indebted to Russia and to Abashidze that his pro-Western course may reverse. This would discourage the free speech and relatively vibrant civil society that has distinguished Georgia from its neighbors. Most of all, any continuance of Shevardnadze's current policy undermines public confidence in democracy. In some analysts' eyes, Shevardnadze will either provoke protestors into anarchy or spur widespread cynicism and public apathy. This would be the legacy of a series of tactics that, although masterful in the short-term struggle for political survival, lack any true strategic vision in the long run.
Jaba Devdariani is a Human Rights Officer with the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina and a longtime journalist formerly based in Georgia.