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Ajaran Autonomous Republic

After months of bitter exchanges that often raised fears of armed conflict, the stand-off finally broke after Russia's Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov held several hours of talks with Mr. Abashidze over night 05-06 May 2004, at Georgia's request. The talks ended with Mr. Abashidze leaving for Moscow.

The autonomous republic of Ajara [aka Ajaria, Adjara and Adzharia] has become an area of rampant criminality entirely controlled by its wealthy leader, Aslan Abashidze. The largely autonomous region of the Autonomous Ajaran Republic is an ethnic Georgian, but historically Muslim, region. Ajara's postindependence relationship to the rest of the country still is undefined and, in matters such as elections, Ajara's authorities claim that regional laws take precedence over national laws. Revival, the dominant political party in Ajara, is led by Aslan Abashidze, the president of Ajara. The Georgian government has been reluctant to challenge illegal and undemocratic activity by the Ajaran authorities, purportedly because it seeks to avoid open separatism.

Georgia's Black Sea ports provide access to the Mediterranean Sea via the Bosporus. Georgia has two principal ports, at Poti and Batumi, and a minor port at Sukhumi. Although Batumi has a natural harbor, Poti's man-made harbor carries more cargo because of that city's rail links to Tbilisi. Batumi's natural port is located on a bay just northeast of the city. Eight alongside berths have a total capacity of 100,000 tons of general cargo, 800,000 tons of bulk cargo, and 6 million tons of petroleum products. Facilities include portal cranes, loaders for moving containers onto rail cars, 5,400 square meters of covered storage, and 13,700 square meters of open storage. The port lies at the end of the Transcaucasian pipeline from Baku and is used primarily for the export of petroleum and petroleum products. The port's location provides some protection from the winds that buffet Poti. However, strong winds can cause dangerous currents in the port area, forcing ships to remain offshore until conditions improve.

Beginning in the 1980s, Black Sea pollution has greatly harmed Georgia's tourist industry. Inadequate sewage treatment is the main cause of that condition. In Batumi, for example, only 18 percent of wastewater is treated before release into the sea. An estimated 70 percent of surface water contains health-endangering bacteria to which Georgia's high rate of intestinal disease is attributed.

In October 1995, one of the oil pipeline consortiums (Azerbaijan International Operating Company) took a major step when it announced preliminary plans to exploit the Azeri oil fields by sending oil through two different pipelines in the lands of the former Soviet Union. The decision included the following provisions: By the end of 1996, oil was to be pumped through an existing pipeline that crosses Russian territory and runs from Azerbaijan to the Russian city of Novorossiisk on the Black Sea. This pipeline, which runs underground through the Chechen capital city of Grozny, is being upgraded. At a later date, oil would be pumped through a second pipeline that crosses Azerbaijan and Georgia, arriving at the Georgian port of Batumi in Ajara. An old pipeline along this route is to be rehabilitated or rebuilt.

In February 1998 communist groups in Georgia' Ajaria region began a petition drive calling for Tbilisi to join the Russian-Belarusian union.

A Joint Statement issued in Istanbul, 17 November 1999, detailed Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE) implementation between the Russian Federation and Georgia. The Russian Side undertook to reduce, by no later than 31 December 2000, the levels of its TLE located within the territory of Georgia in such a way that they will not exceed 153 tanks, 241 ACVs and 140 artillery systems. No later than 31 December 2000, the Russian Side withdrew the TLE located at the Russian military bases at Vaziani and Gudauta and at the repair facilities in Tbilisi.The Russian military bases at Gudauta and Vaziani were disbanded and withdrawn by 1 July 2001. The Georgian Side granted to the Russian Side the right to basic temporary deployment of its TLE at facilities of the Russian military bases at Batumi and Akhalkalaki. During the year 2000 the two Sides began negotiations regarding the duration and modalities of the functioning of the Russian military bases at Batumi and Akhalkalaki and the Russian military facilities within the territory of Georgia.

The division of power between the central and local governments remained a key issue in the country's transition to democracy. The degree of actual autonomy to be exercised by the "Autonomous Ajaran Republic" was at the center of this debate during 1999. Ajara's postindependence relationship to the rest of the country still was undefined and, in matters such as elections, Ajara's authorities claimed that regional laws took precedence over national laws. The Revival Party, the dominant political party in Ajara led by Aslan Abashidze, the President of the Autonomous Ajaran Republic, boycotted the national Parliament for much of the year in a dispute over the degree of autonomy in Ajara. It took part in the 31 October 1999 parliamentary elections as the major opponent to Shevardnadze. The Government was reluctant to challenge interference in the local electoral process by the Ajaran authorities because it sought to avoid encouraging threats of separatism in this ethnically Georgian, but historically Muslim, region.

The Ajaran government, along with much of the opposition, alleged that widespread fraud occurred in the 1995 presidential and parliamentary elections. Serious violations were noted in Ajara in these elections as well. Ajara did not allow international or domestic observation of its local elections held in 1996. It criticized as undemocratic the Government's refusal to allow directly elected local officials and announced that local officials in Ajara would be elected directly. In the November 1998 local elections, the mayor of Batumi was elected by a direct vote, in contrast to the other major cities of Georgia. In the October parliamentary elections, international and domestic observers reported various forms of intimidation and abuses in Ajara, as well as outright fraud.

Channel 25 is the only independent television station broadcasting in Ajara, and has been operating since 1998. On 14 February 2000, it broadcast its first uncensored news coverage. On 19 February 2000, three of the four owners of the station alleged that they were coerced by Ajaran regional government officials and Mikhail Gagoshidze, chairman of Ajaran Television and Radio, to cede 75 percent of the company's shares to Gagoshidze. The owners stated that in return they were forced to take $50,000 (100,000 laris) in cash. The same day, Batumi mayor Aslan Smirba physically assaulted Avtandil Gvasalia, the station's commercial director. Smirba claimed that he had a right to own the station, as he had helped the company get permission to broadcast. The owners brought suit against Gagoshidze, but lost their case in Ajara regional court.

In April 2000 the Parliament of Georgia granted the former autonomous Soviet Republic of Ajara the constitutional status of an autonomous republic. The division of authorities and competencies between the national and Ajaran governments had not yet been defined.

Election results in the autonomous republic of Ajara propelled the party of regional leader Aslan Abashidze up into first place in 02 November 2003 legislative polls. In the Autonomous Republic of Ajara, dominated by Ajaran Supreme Chairman Aslan Abashidze, fraud was widespread. Officials said Abashidze's Democratic Revival Union garnered 95 percent of the votes in Ajara, with two minor opposition groups sharing the remainder. Ajara's lawmakers then adopted a resolution boosting Abashidze's powers in the police and defense sectors -- a decision that runs contrary to the Georgian Constitution. President Shevardnadze and his government refused to admit their defeat, and in a bargain between them and Ajara's regime, official results showed Abashidze's Revival and Shevardnadze's For a New Georgia came first and second place in the 02 November 2003 legislative polls. It seemed that the two mean had struck a deal, under which Shevardnadze would not to reassert control over Ajara in return for Abashidze's support for Shevardnadze in the national parliament.

Following the seriously flawed November 2, 2003 parliamentary elections, popular street demonstrations led to the November 23, 2003 resignation of former President Eduard Shevardnadze.

As part of a nationwide crackdown on corruption, Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili accused Adzharian tax and customs authorities of withholding tax payments. He also wants to disarm paramilitary forces in Adzharia. In March 2004, Adzharian border guards prevented the Georgian leader from entering the region. In a bid to assert his authority the Georgian president imposed an economic blockade on the separatist province. It was lifted within days following what were called successful talks between Mr. Saakashvili and Mr. Abashidze. In April 2004 Adzharia sought outside help to protect it from the Georgian central authorities. The Adzharian leader, Aslan Abashidze, urged Russia and the United States to intervene and prevent a conflict between his region and the Georgian authorities.

On 19 April 2004, Gen. Roman Dumbadze, commander of the 25th Motor-Rifle brigade based in Batumi, declared his opposition to Tbilisi, announcing that his soldiers "answer only to Aslan Abashidze, our supreme commander." The Ajarian leader, Mr. Abashidze, has rejected an ultimatum from Tbilisi to dismantle militias loyal to him and accept central government authority, and on 02 May 2004 his forces blew up two bridges and partly dismantled a railway linking the region with the rest of Georgia. The bridge blasts coincided with the final day of large-scale maneuvers by the Georgian military, which were being conducted near the administrative border with Adjaria.

Tensions between Georgia's central authorities and the breakaway Adjar Autonomous Republic mounted in the wake of an ultimatum delivered 02 May 2004 by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili gave the republic 10 days to cease its violations of Georgian law and to disarm its paramilitaries. "We had a meeting of the Security Council where we have decided, one last time, to give a deadline to [Adjar leader] Aslan Abashidze," Saakashvili said. "We will give him 10 days to return to Georgia's constitutional framework, to stop violations of human rights, arrests, and beatings -- like, for example, [on 2 May] several journalists and some other people were beaten up." Saakashvili told reporters that if Adjaria's leadership does not meet his demands, he will be forced to consider dissolving the region's state bodies and calling new elections. Georgia's foreign ministry describes Mr. Abashidze as "unacceptable" and says under his leadership, Adjaria has been torn apart from the rest of Georgia and now stands on the brink of a "humanitarian disaster."

The Russian Foreign Ministry warned the Georgian government yesterday that any use of force in the situation would have "catastrophic consequences." Walter Schwimmer, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, the democracy watchdog that in the past has mediated between Saakashvili and Abashidze, described the row as "an extremely dangerous escalation."

The United States on 03 May 2004 expressed strong support for the Georgian government's efforts to restore authority in the rebellious Ajaria region on the Black Sea Coast. The State Department said it is concerned that the Ajarian leader, Aslan Abashidze, may be trying to provoke a military confrontation. At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said: "Recent steps taken by Mr. Abashidze and his government raise concerns that he may be trying to provoke a military crisis, with Georgia's newly democratically-elected leadership, rather than try to resolve the situation peacefully. The fundamental issue for us is that Ajaria is part of Georgia. We strongly support the Georgian government's effort to restore its authority and the rule of law in Ajaria. We also believe that the people of Ajaria deserve the same level of democracy and accountability as all the people of Georgia." Boucher said the United States has been concerned in recent months about what he said was the willingness of Mr. Abashidze to allow human rights activists and journalists in Ajaria to be harassed and abused, including what he said have been cases of "brutal beatings" and arrests on false pretenses.

Aslan Abashidze

Aslan Abashidze is Head of Adjarian Supreme Council and President of the Ajaran Autonomous Republic. His family is said to have ruled Ajara in one capacity or another since the year 1453. The first well documented ruler was the Most Excellent Prince Paata Abashidze, Prince of Saabashidzo and Sapalavando, who died in 1658. Over time, these potentates accumulated an impressive series of titles, such as H.M. The Most High King Giorgi V Abashidze, by the will of our Lord, King of the Abkhazis, Kartvelians, Ranians, Kakhetians and the Armenians, Shah of Shirvan and Shah-in-Shah and Autocrater of all the East and West, King of Imerati, who was deposed after a revolt by the nobles, in favour of the rightful King Giorgi VI in 1707.

President Aslan Abashidze's grandfather went to the GULAG in 1937 and was shot two months after his arrest. Aslan Abashidze was born in Batumi on 20th of July, 1938. He graduated from Batumi State Pedagogical Institute in 1962. In 1984, he studied economics at the Tbilisi State University. From 1981 he worked as a vice-chairman of Batumi Public Deputy Council Executive Committee. In 1984-1986 he became the Minister of Everyday repairs and Other Services, then the First Deputy Minister of Public Utilities and Everyday repairs and Other Services. In 1989, he founded the Concern of Everyday repairs and Other Services and became its President.

In 1991, Aslan Abashidze became the Chairman of Adjarian Supreme Council. He served simultaneously as the Vice-Chairman of Georgian Parliament in the years 1991-1995 (December). In 1991, Aslan Abashidze founded a political party called "The Adjarian Union of Revival of the Whole Georgia" that had a success during the Georgian elections of November 1995.

Aslan Abashidze was elected as a member of the Euro-Parliament Humanitarian Problems International Independent Bureau Council. He is also the honoured President of Georgian Orientalists' association, the honoured Academician of the Academy of Political Sc iences of Georgia, the honoured Member of the Academy of Georgia's National and Social Relations, and the Academician of the International Academy of Information. He has been awarded with the "honoured Symbol" and "friendship" Orders, honoured Symbol of Russian Federation "For Serving in Caucasus" and various medals. The Russian Joint-Stock Company ("Space and Earth) has decided to name the nameless star in the constellation of the Archer (Orion) Aslan Abashidze.

Aslan Abashidze has a wife - Maguli Gogitidze, a musician by profession, who is chairman of Adjarian Cultural Fund. He has two children, a daughter - Diana, and a son - Giorgi. He also has a grandchild, Giorgi. His hobbies include drawing and sculpting.



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