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Ousted Georgian Territorial Leader Ruled Adjaria as Personal Fiefdom - 2004-04-23

VOA's Brent Hurd traveled to the Adjarian capital of Batumi to examine life under strongman Aslan Abashidze.

Batumi is a premiere vacation spot on the Black Sea coast. Its lush subtropical climate and pleasingly turquoise water attract many visitors from Georgia and around the world.

Leafy palms and fragrant citrus trees flourish in this corner of the Caucasus. The city sits on a narrow band of coastal lowland with soaring, snow-covered peaks rising nearby. The flow of commerce is evident here with 200,000 barrels of Caspian oil loaded on ships heading west each day.

Batumi is also the capital of a small region within Georgia called Adjaria, whose fate is tied to the ongoing struggle between the central government and Adjaria's leader, Aslan Abashidze.

With the help of "autonomous" status given to the territory during the days of the Soviet Union, Adjaria has its own constitution, controls local revenues and runs its own private militia. By most accounts, Mr. Abashidze has essentially ruled this seaside territory as his own personal fiefdom since he came to power in 1991. In most of the rest of Georgia, a vibrant open society is taking root with free media, multiple political parties and open public discussions.

But most of the citizens in Adjaria live in fear of speaking openly about Mr. Abashide's government. Opposition political groups are at great risk here and the only media is state-run. This autocratic style of rule is in sharp contrast to Georgia's budding democracy, lead by President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Relations between Georgia and Adjaria took a turn for the worse in early March when Mr. Saakashvili traveled to Adjaria, technically within Georgia, only to be turned away by tanks and armed militiamen. Determined to assert his power, the 36-year-old Georgian leader slapped an economic blockade on the region and put Georgian troops on high alert.

After a tense four-day standoff, the two leaders reached an agreement with Mr. Abashidze pledging to allow free and fair voting in last month's Georgian parliamentary elections. President Saakashvili agreed to continue to honor Adjaria's autonomous status.

On election day, many of Batumi's 140,000 citizens cast their ballots. In the end, election violations such as intimation of opposition party members, journalists and observers were reported, but there were no signs of violence.

Ia Takidze, founder of a non-governmental organization promoting women's rights in Adjaria, said this election was unlike any she has ever seen. “People are more active in this election than the previous one, which was impossible to imagine before,” she said. “They are not afraid to express a different opinion or vote for their candidate of choice. The hope for positive changes is so strong that people are coming to the polling stations to make their choice. It is impossible to live in the conditions we lived in before -- some changes must follow. The regional government must obey the central government. If Aslan Abashidze really loves and respects his people he must leave peacefully.”

In contrast to the previous few elections when Mr. Abashidze's Revival Union Party won at least 90% of the vote, this time his party failed to secure the 7% of the national vote needed to win seats in the Georgian parliament. A majority of voters in the capital Batumi and forty-percent of Adjaria's overall voter population cast ballots for Mr. Saakashvili's National Movement-Democratic Party. And opposition supporters savored their victory with a celebration speech. One leader said “Because of the election results, we can claim our victory and Aslan Abashidze has to leave.” The crowd followed his words with cheers of “TSADI, TSADI, TSADI (go away, go away, go away)."

Temuri Yakobashvili, political analyst at the Georgian Foundation For Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi, cautions it may be too early for celebration. Although he no longer control seats in Georgia's parliament, Aslan Abashidze still remains in power. But analyst Yakobashvili says the vote sent a clear message to the longtime leader. “Parliamentary election results indicate that Mr. Abashidze already has very serious opposition in the country,” he said. “And in spite of violations during the elections, you can clearly see that Mr. Abashidze's supporters, though they are there, are, I would imagine, not more than 30%. And the rest of the population is not feeling very comfortable with him.”

According to Mr. Yakobashvili, this discomfort is largely due to a lack of freedom of speech in the territory. Natalie Ebralidze, a 26-year-old school teacher in Batumi, was one of a few people willing to speak with me about life in Adjaria. “Most of my friends and neighbors and family are not free to speak,” she says. “They are afraid of losing their jobs and are afraid for their kids. Many of them were unemployed for a long time and the social conditions are very hard here. They are afraid to leave their kids hungry or of going to prison. They are afraid they won' t say the right thing, because it happens [that people are jailed for this]. We have political prisoners.”

Aslan Abashidze's forces have arrested various dissidents and opposition leaders. Sixty-three-year-old Zoya Katiba's son is one of them. She says that's the price her son paid for supporting one of the main opposition parties in Adjaria and for displaying a poster of President Saakashvili and the new Georgian flag on the front of his house. Last February, a group of armed men showed up to take him away. “My nephew's head was hit by a hammer; our new car was destroyed,” she said. “The leader of the autonomous republic had publicly accused my son as an enemy. Aslan Abashidze destroyed his reputation with his words. And my son is still in jail.” Mrs. Katiba blames the local government for what happened; saying the police only stood by and did nothing to protect their citizens.

In a recent ruling, the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights demanded the instant release of a former mayor of Batumi arrested by Adjarian officials in 1993 on charges of illegal financial dealings. The European Court ruled that he was simply a political prisoner held on false charges. Georgian political analyst Temuri Yakobashvili warns the crisis in Adjaria is still far from over. “The greatest danger [right now] is bloodshed or engagement in some sort of military operation,” he says. “It looks like Aslan Abashidze will use all of his forces to stay in power. And that's the bad news. I don't think he is concerned about his people or what they want. He will try to stay in power using all means necessary. And what we see now is that he is largely now relaying on military means.”

Mr. Abashidze insists he simply wishes to maintain the political status quo for Adjaria and does not want the region to secede from Georgia. And he accuses the opposition and the central government in Tbilisi of provoking confrontation in an effort to oust him -- a charge Georgian officials deny.

There is an uneasy calm between the two sides. Mindful of civil war that led to the loss of two other Georgian territories in the 1990s, most analysts say the last thing the central government wants is another military conflict.

The Georgian central government wants Adjarian authorities to pay taxes, improve human rights in the region and disarm both the militia and private citizens it armed during the March crisis. School teacher Natalie Ebralidze is optimistic that peace and more freedoms will come to Adjaria. “This will be a real chance for us to start a new kind of life to live safely, not afraid to express our ideas freely, and to just led a very healthy way of life.”

Adjaria is on the top of the new Georgian parliament's agenda. Although Aslan Abashidze will remain in power in the short run, the parliament can call for new local elections in Adjaria, which many analysts say, could be his last election.