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Adzharia: All Quiet for Now

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  • Adzharia: All Quiet for Now

    Moscow Times, Russia
    March 23 2004

    Adzharia: All Quiet for Now

    By Pavel Felgenhauer

    After six days of high tension, the confrontation between the
    authorities in Tbilisi and the autonomous republic of Adzharia ended
    after face-to-face talks in Batumi between Georgian President Mikheil
    Saakashvili and Adzharian leader Aslan Abashidze.

    The settlement involved an apparent climb down by Abashidze, who
    pledged to allow opposition political activity in his strictly
    controlled fiefdom, as well as a possible sharing of control of
    Batumi port and its customs revenues with Tbilisi. In return,
    Saakashvili announced the lifting of an economic blockade imposed on
    Adzharia last week.

    As Georgia's biggest seaport, Batumi is also used by landlocked
    Armenia, whose borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey have been closed to
    any traffic since 1991, as one of its main outlets to the outside
    world. During his years as the sole, absolute ruler of Adzharia,
    Abashidze has privatized the Batumi port and its customs service.

    The income from the Batumi port and customs has allowed Abashidze to
    equip a large private army -- and to wine, dine and pay bribes to
    various Russian military and civilian officials.

    During the rule of Saakashvili's predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze,
    Abashidze formed a political party called "Vozrozhdenie," and clearly
    harbored ambitions to eventually take over in Tbilisi. But the fall
    of Shevardnadze in November's "Rose Revolution" catapulted
    Saakashvili to power in Tbilisi and dashed Abashidze's hopes. Since
    then, the Adzharian leader has openly opposed Saakashvili, obviously
    worried that he might lose control of his fiefdom.

    Russia has maintained a military garrison in Batumi since Soviet
    times and the port has been used to supply other Russian bases in
    Georgia and Armenia. In 1999, during an OSCE summit in Istanbul,
    Russia promised to close its bases in Georgia by January 2004. This
    deadline has passed and now Russia says it needs 11 more years and
    some half a billion dollars to complete withdrawal.

    Courtesy of Abashidze, Russia for the past decade could move men and
    military equipment through Batumi without asking Tbilisi. The
    Adzharian tangle involves the military, political and economic
    interests of Russia, Turkey and the West (as a major oil pipeline is
    being built in the region to bring Caspian oil to the world market).

    Last week, Abashidze's gunmen prevented Saakashvili from entering
    Adzharian territory. Later Abashidze announced that Georgian
    government forces were planning the imminent invasion of Adzharia and
    demanded the Russian military's help.

    It soon transpired that Tbilisi was not actually planning an
    immediate invasion and that there were in fact no forces amassed on
    the Adzharian border. Apparently Abashidze hoped to provoke
    Saakashvili into military action by personally insulting him. But
    Saakashvili, after some tough talk, under diplomatic pressure from
    Washington and Moscow, decided to use economic pressure instead. The
    Georgian navy began stopping foreign ships from reaching Batumi. A
    blockade of Adzharia, if strictly imposed, could cause economic
    disaster in the entire region.

    Last week, the crisis in Adzharia also caused a commotion in and
    around the Kremlin. Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov went to Batumi to
    "defend his brother" Abashidze. A foreign policy official close to
    Vladimir Putin told me that Luzhkov's move was not viewed favorably
    in the Kremlin, though it was decided not to publicly disavow him.

    I was told that Abashidze was influenced by a group of aggressive
    generals, led by a former Russian defense minister. But by last
    Friday a decision was taken in the Kremlin to put serious pressure on
    Abashidze to stop causing trouble. I was also told that during the
    crisis Saakashvili had behaved well, in line with his promises to
    Putin during their recent meeting in the Kremlin.

    It all ended well: Saakashvili finally visited Adzharia and displayed
    personal valor in facing crowds of Abashidze gunmen. It was proven
    that a large part of the Adzharian population in fact support
    Saakashvili. But if Saakashvili, in the future, actually tries to
    oust the Abashidze clan, an armed conflict may still unfold.

    What is even more troubling is the incoherence of our policy in the
    Caucasus (and in many other places). Putin, receiving advice from
    different factions, constantly changes his opinion. Strange groups of
    corrupt adventurers often succeed in hijacking foreign, defense and
    national security decision-making to meet their specific needs, while
    Russia's true national interests are ignored.

    Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.