Officials in Georgia are concerned that rising tension in the breakaway region of Abkhazia may spill over into the neighboring regions of Samegrelo and Imereti, where Tbilisi is already struggling to promote order. Observers say the situation is exposing the underlying weakness of Georgia's regional political institutions.
The tension in Abkhazia which broke free of Tbilisi's rule during a 1992-93 conflict, but whose independence claims have not won international recognition -- centers on the disputed October 3 presidential election in the region. Local election officials have declared that Sergei Bagapsh defeated the Moscow-backed candidate, Raul Khajimba. Khajimba supporters, however, are not accepting defeat. The Abkhaz "supreme court" is due to consider the election issue on October 19, the Civil Georgia web site reported.
Many political analysts in Georgia now fear that Abkhazia faces the prospect of internecine conflict, possibly sparking population displacement. Upheaval in Abkhazia could easily upset the tenuous socio-economic balance in Samegrelo and Imereti, dashing President Mikheil Saakashvili's efforts to promote the rule of law in the two regions.
Since his rise to power in January, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has made the anti-crime struggle in both regions a high political priority. Samegrelo and Imereti are viewed by top members of Saakashvili's administration as Georgia's "heartland." Strengthening the political infrastructure of the two regions, thus, is essential if the central government is to achieve his overall objective of re-establishing Tbilisi's authority across all Georgian territory, especially in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In late September, Saakashvili appointed Gigi Ugulava, a former deputy security minister, as his personal representative in Samegrelo. The appointment came amid reports of deteriorating security conditions in the region, long a hotbed for fuel and cigarette smuggling from Abkhazia. Almost immediately, Ugulava ordered police raids designed to curb the influence of criminal gangs.
In Imereti, Saakashvili is counting on his political representative Gia Getsadze, a former deputy interior minister, to press a similar anti-crime campaign. Getsadze has already made some progress in tackling the province's largest problem corruption. On October 6, two former directors of a local manganese mining concern were arrested for alleged misuse of office and misappropriation of assets.
Despite a few high-profile successes, Tbilisi remains concerned that its authority is being undermined by suspected close ties between local law-enforcement agencies in the two regions and criminal groups. Georgian media outlets have reported that several recent raids in both provinces failed after being compromised -- supposedly by tip-offs coming from corrupt local police officers.
Saakashvili's use of central officials to trouble-shoot in the provinces should be viewed as a stop-gap solution, some Tbilisi observers maintain. Provincial identities and loyalties run strong in Georgia. While open confrontation is unlikely, quiet sabotage of "the golden boys" from the capital is always a possibility, analysts suggest. They add that the prospects for stability in Samegrelo and Imereti depend on Tbilisi's ability to overhaul the local bureaucracy.
That Saakashvili turned to Getsadze and Ugulava to address the challenges in Imereti and Samegrelo suggests that the president lacks trust in his main political power base, the National Movement, as a means for filling important posts in the provinces. Neither Ugulava nor Getsadze are active members of Saakashvili's National Movement. Instead, like many members of the Georgian government, their careers are rooted in the country's non-governmental sector. Under Georgia's former president Eduard Shevardnadze, Ugulava served as a member of the anti-corruption commission, which was mainly composed of non-governmental activists. Getsadze was affiliated with the influential Young Lawyer's Association before moving after the Rose Revolution to the Justice Ministry and, later, to the Interior Ministry.
In general, the system of local governance lacks transparency and remains weak. Saakashvili's special representatives in the provinces claim the prerogatives of a governor, but their lack of a popular mandate hampers their ability to act as regional executives. In addition, the Georgian constitution does not specify their duties and obligations. In fact, these representatives largely duplicate the role of the gamgebelis, or local elected councils, whose dependency on financing from the central budget renders them extremely weak politically. Although Saakashvili has promised to empower the councils, as well as make mayors subject to popular elections, parliament has yet to approve a blueprint for these reforms.
Jaba Devdariani is a Human Rights Officer with the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina and a longtime journalist in Georgia. This commentary does not reflect the views of the OSCE.