When Georgia's new parliament convenes April 22 its first order of business will be the Ajaria issue. Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze indicated that MPs will work on a measure to reintegrate the renegade region into Georgia's "constitutional space."
Some observers in Tbilisi believe that the window of opportunity is rapidly closing for a negotiated settlement to the power dispute between the central government and the Aslan Abashidze's Ajarian regional authority. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The recent mutiny of the commander of a Georgian military unit based in Ajaria has frayed the patience of President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration in Tbilisi.
There are indications that the new parliament, which is dominated by Saakashvili supporters, may strive to act decisively to break Abashidze's choke-hold on power in Ajaria. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Abashidze opponents in Ajaria, for instance, have urged the Georgian legislature to mandate early elections for Ajaria's regional council. Ajaria is notorious for holding rigged elections that gave Abashidze overwhelming majorities. But in Georgia's new political order, ballot-box stuffing has become increasingly difficult. Thus, fresh elections would stand to dilute Abashidze's authority. The results of the late March parliamentary vote indicated that regional opposition parties enjoyed considerable support among Ajarian residents.
Burjanadze, in an April 19 interview broadcast by the Rustavi-2 television channel, was coy on the early election question, but stressed that "Ajaria must be fully incorporated into the Georgian constitutional framework ... which is certainly not the case today."
On April 20, Republican Party leader Davit Berdzenishvili, a close political ally of Saakashvili, said he would seek the abolition of the chairmanship of the Ajarian regional legislature, the position that Abashidze relies on to wield his power, the Russian Itar-Tass news agency reported.
As it already stands, Abashidze's political clout in Georgia has been considerably reduced. His political movement, the Revival Union, had been a strong backer of former president Eduard Shevardnadze. Accordingly, the Revival Union enjoyed considerable influence in the previous Georgian parliament, enabling Abashidze to play a prominent role in national politics. In the March parliamentary vote, however, the Revival Union did not receive at least 7 percent of the vote, and thus failed to qualify for parliamentary seats on the basis of proportional representation. Only six Revival Union politicians who won first-past-the-post contests will hold seats in the next legislature.
The mutiny, led by Gen. Roman Dumbadze, is fuelling a sense of urgency in Tbilisi to resolve the Ajaria issue. On April 19, Dumbadze, commander of the 25th Motor-Rifle brigade based in the Ajarian capital Batumi, declared his open opposition to Tbilisi, announcing that his troops "answer only to Aslan Abashidze, our supreme commander." His announcement came after Saakashvili's administration took action to remove him over his actions during the mid-March confrontation between the Ajarian and Georgian leaders. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Only a portion of the 25th brigade's troops appear to remain with Dumbadze. On April 21, 16 officers from the unit affirmed their loyalty to Saakashvili's administration, joining 17 officers who had done so the previous day. The unit's new commander, Gen. Viktor Mikeladze, told Rustavi 2 that only about 100 soldiers out of the 343 in the unit at the time of the mutiny continue to take orders from Dumbadze. Mikeladze added that the unit's state of military preparedness was poor. "There are only automatic firearms in the unit," Mikeladze said. "There are also three infantry fighting vehicles, but they are unserviceable."
Authorities in Tbilisi are taking swift action to make an example of Dumbadze, aiming to discourage such instances of insubordination in the future. Prosecutor General Irakli Okruashvili announced that an international warrant had been issued for Dumbadze's arrest on charges of treason, abuse of office and illegal seizure of arms.
"We will soon find this man [Dumbadze] and bring him to justice," Saakashvili said in comments broadcast by Imedi TV. "This man had a duty to protect the population of Ajaria and the population of Georgia. Instead, he decided to protect a drug baron and criminal [a reference to Abashidze], and take his side."
Saakashvili allegation that Ajarian leaders engage in criminal activity indicates that Tbilisi is preparing an all-out political offensive to topple the Ajarian leader. Ajarian officials have denied involvement in narcotics trafficking.
"People say that there is no need for confrontation. Of course, there is not. But that is precisely what they [Ajarian leaders] want. They want everything to stay as it is. They want to continue making hundreds of millions and arresting people. They want to turn the whole of Georgia into drug addicts," Saakashvili said in April 20 comments broadcast by Rustavi 2. "For the sake of Georgia's interests, we should be ready to take any steps. Naturally, I will do my utmost to ensure that ordinary people do not suffer. However, Georgia will make no concessions to criminals."
Many officials in Tbilisi now believe that it is impossible to achieve a political compromise that would leave Abashidze in power. Giga Bokeria, a leading civil society activist who now serves as spokesman for the pro-Saakashvili National Movement-Democrats parliamentary faction, has said publicly that any talk of a "compromise" should be viewed within the context of Abashidze's peaceful departure from power.
Jaba Devdariani is a board member of the United Nations Association of Georgia and analyst of Georgian politics, currently working in Bosnia and Herzegovina.