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In the News
Last Updated: 05/20/2004
Georgia: “Rose revolutions”
Yotam Ben Meir

Amid rising tension with the leadership of the autonomous region of Ajaria, which did not fully recognize the authority of Mr. Saakashvili, Georgia’s elected president, on March 2004 Tbilisi briefly imposes sanctions on Ajaria and closed the border. On May, Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze, claiming that Georgian forces were about to invade, blows up bridges connecting the region with the rest of Georgia. President Saakashvili ordered Mr. Abashidze to comply with Georgian constitution and disarm his forces or face removal. After thousands took to the streets of Ajaria’s capital, demanding Aslan Abashidze to resign, Mr. Abashidze resigned and left Georgia. Elections to a new administration are expected in June.


On January 9 2004, Mikhail Saakashvili, the newly elected president of Georgia, faced his first serious challenge, when the separatist western region of Ajaria declared a state of emergency claiming "certain forces" were trying to overthrow its regime. The Ajarian leader, Aslan Abashidze, asked his parliament to reintroduce the state of emergency that had given his police forces heightened powers after last year's "rose revolution" overthrew the national government. The Georgian deputy interior minister, Givi Ugulava, said Mr. Abashidze had exceeded his authority. "The declaration of a state of emergency is the prerogative of the Georgian president," he said. (The Guardian)

On March 13 2004,Georgia has reportedly put its armed forces on alert after President Mikhail Saakashvili was barred from entering the troubled region of Ajaria. Mr. Saakashvili had decided to visit the region to campaign for parliamentary elections set for late March. Georgian TV showed footage of troops loyal to Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze blocking Mr. Saakashvili's convoy at a checkpoint on a road into the region. Security Council chief Vano Merabishvili told the TV Mr. Saakashvili's convoy was met with warning shots as it approached the checkpoint near the town of Cholokhi. (BBC)

The people of Ajaria are ethnically Georgian and the region also has a substantial Russian-speaking population. Under Ottoman rule from the 17th until the 19th century, Islam predominated. The word Ajarian came to mean a Georgian Muslim. Unlike the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Ajaria has been spared major violence and ethnic unrest since Georgia became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Aslan Abashidze under whose tight control it enjoyed political stability and relative economic prosperity led the region between 1991 and May 2004. Election results gave him at least 90% of the vote every time and he ruled in what many observers described as an autocratic style.

Ajaria achieved a substantial degree of autonomy from Tbilisi, and had its own security and interior ministries, which were under the full control of the Ajarian leadership. (BBC)

After Eduard Shevardnadze was overthrown as Georgian president, after peaceful protests, and the results of the November 2003 elections were annulled, a state of emergency was declared in Ajaria. Its leadership refused to recognize the full authority of Mikhail Saakashvili as Georgian president. As Mr. Saakashvili sought to assert control, abolish the Ajarian security ministry and end what he said was corruption in the Ajarian tax and customs authorities, the stand off between Tbilisi and Batumi, Ajaria s capital, grew increasingly tense. (BBC)

The Ajarian leadership wanted to remain firmly under Russia's influence, as Mr. Abashidze strongly opposed the western-leaning Georgian president. (BBC)

On March 14 2004, Aslan Abashidze accused the new Georgian authorities of preparing to invade Ajaria. 4 days later, after talks with Mr. Abashidze, President Mikhail Saakashvili announced that the Economic sanctions against Ajaria region, put on the region just a week earlier, were being lifted. (BBC)

However, while on March 29 Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili set the seal on his "rose revolution" of last November, when his party appeared to win every seat in a parliamentary election just the day before, on May 2004, Mr. Abashidze claimed again that Georgian forces were preparing to invade Ajaria. His forces blew up bridges connecting the region with the rest of Georgia. Mr. Abashidze said he feared Georgian soldiers on exercises nearby were about to invade. In response, Mr. Saakashvili ordered the Ajarian leader to comply with the Georgian constitution and start disarming or face removal.

Thousands of people in Batumi the capital of Georgia's rebel region of Ajaria took to the streets, urging their leader to resign and end a tense stand-off with Tbilisi. Ajaria's police joined the protestors, as Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili warned Mr. Abashidze must quit to avoid bloodshed. The protests later turned into celebration as the demonstrators perceived signs that the regime of the local strongman was crumbling. Some even described the latest developments as Ajaria's own "velvet revolution" (BBC) Finally, in an echo of events in Tbilisi the previous autumn, Mr. Abashidze resigned. His post as leader has been abolished but elections to a new administration are expected in June. (BBC)

Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili has disbanded the parliament of Ajaria and imposed a direct presidential rule in the autonomous province. The BBC's Chloe Arnold in Georgia says the elections in Ajaria are likely to establish a cabinet of ministers who will run the Black Sea territory, and will be answerable to the central government in Tbilisi. (BBC)

In Batumi, minibuses carrying delighted pro-Saakashvili supporters whisked back and forth across town the same day, with the new Georgian national flag flying from their windows. Tornika, 13, racing around on his bicycle, had the flag's red crosses painted on his face. "It shows I am against Aslan," he grinned. "He was a bad guy. His men beat many people. Now he is gone. Everything will be all right."

Maria, 34, celebrating with her two-year-old daughter, said: "We really love Batumi and want to make it beautiful again. After 13 years, the regime was broken in one day: the people are in shock. But Georgians are strong. All the nationalities that live here - Greeks, Turks, Russians - came out to get rid of Abashidze. Soon all of Georgia will be reunited again."

Mr. Saakashvili capped the first triumph of his presidency when he addressed cheering crowds in Ajaria hours after Aslan Abashidze had fled to Moscow. Mr Saakashvili said, "The process of restoration of the country's unity has begun. With Abashidze's resignation, a new epoch begins not only in the lives of the residents of the autonomous republic, but in Georgia as a whole - an epoch of democracy, of peace, an epoch of real unity". (The Guardian)

 

East- West and Billions of Dollars

What began as a local spat threatened to turn into an international incident. The crisis aroused the concern of Russia, Europe and the US, all of whom consider the Black Sea state to be of key strategic importance.

Mr Abashidze, who maintained strong links with Moscow, has appealed to Russia to help in the dispute. Russia, a giant among the world's oil exporters, retains military bases in Ajaria, which are a source of tension between Georgia and Russia. Moscow has warned Georgia's government not to interfere in the semi-autonomous Ajaria region. There were fears Russia could deploy troops from its military base in Ajaria to combat Georgian forces, which have been placed on high alert.

On the other hand, there were growing concerns in the west about the deteriorating situation in Georgia. Western governments, which are backing the construction of a multi-billion dollar pipeline in the troubled region, were keeping a watchful eye on events, since any conflict would put the security of the pipeline in jeopardy. (BBC)

 

Comments and analysis

-- The defusing of the crisis in the Georgian province of Ajaria following the departure of rebel leader Aslan Abashidze is greeted in the region's press with cautious relief. In Georgia, papers are grateful to Russia for its mediation. A sense of satisfaction is echoed in the other Caucasian republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan. But in Russia, the press is full of misgivings. It sees America as the overall winner and warns of problems ahead. (BBC)

 

-- That November's "revolution of roses" was stage-managed by the Americans has been admitted even by the new president himself, who has said that his coup could not have succeeded without US help. Abashidze also confirmed it over the last events, when he said that his discussions with the American ambassador to Georgia, Richard Miles, had convinced him that nothing could happen in the country without a green light from Washington. Georgia, Russia's backyard, and the country used as a base by the Chechens, is now as thoroughly controlled by the US as Panama - and for much the same reasons. As in Central America, economic devastation has been the handmaiden of political control, reducing what was previously the richest Soviet republic to a miserable, pre-industrial subsistence. Georgia on their mind

 

-- European papers see the developments in Georgia's Ajaria province as a sign of growing American influence in the region. (BBC)

 

-- Following the downfall of provincial hardman Aslan Abashidze, Nick Paton Walsh from the guardian, takes a look inside his regime and examines his legacy. After the revolution.

Contact Yotam Ben Meir at: ymeir@upeace.org


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