BATUMI (Eurasianet)–Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili on March 18 ordered the lifting of an economic blockade against the renegade region of Ajaria. The announcement followed direct talks between the president and Ajarian leader that resolved "all the questions" that had prompted an armed standoff over the past four days–according to Saakashvili.
Saakashvili’s face-to-face meeting with Abashidze in Batumi lasted over three hours. Saakashvili seemed to be in a buoyant mood following the discussions. "I believe we have achieved full mutual understanding," he said. A terse Abashidze–meanwhile–concurred that "all the disputable issues have been settled."
Georgia imposed measures that sought to economically isolate Ajaria following an incident March 14–in which Ajarian border guards prevented Saakashvili’s motorcade from entering the region. Georgian security forces retaliated by sealing the port at the Ajarian capital of Batumi. In addition–Tbilisi had brought a halt to all banking activity in the region.
Saakashvili’s chief deman’s for ending the blockade were: unimpeded access by central government officials to the territory–central government oversight over tax and customs revenue collection in the region–and a guarantee of a free and fair parliamentary campaign and election on March 28.
Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze has doggedly tried to preserve broad autonomous powers–specifically control over locally generated revenue. Abashidze has likewise attempted to maintain tight control over Ajaria’s political environment–fearful that free elections would break his tight grip on power. In recent weeks–opposition political activists have endured physical attacks and other forms of harassment at the hands of Abashidze loyalists.
According to a Rustavi-2 television report–in return for the lifting of the economic blockade–Abashidze acknowledged the central government’s right to "impose control over customs–the port and all strategic offices." The Ajarian leader also pledged to allow competitive elections and "provide freedom of speech on the territory of the Ajarian autonomous republic." In addition–Abashidze is to be held personally responsible for disarming armed bands of Ajarian citizens that had been mobilized in recent days.
While clearly happy with the results–Saakashvili cautioned that Abashidze would be judged on the implementation of the points of agreement. Initial indicators showed that the March 28 parliamentary could prove a source of ongoing tension. After his meeting with Abashidze–Saakashvili went to the headquarters of a major regional opposition movement–Our Ajaria. Abashidze supporters reportedly restricted access to the meeting–preventing some opposition activists from attending–Rustavi-2 reported. In addition–regional television–which is controlled by Abashidze–did not report on the meeting.
Pressure on Abashidze to hold a fair election is not coming solely from Tbilisi. Prior to the announced ending of the economic blockade–Georgian officials revealed that Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer had telephoned Abashidze–urging the Ajarian leader to provide for an open campaign environment.
For the moment–Saakashvili seemed sufficiently satisfied that the Ajaria crisis has been defused that he left the country–flying directly from Batumi to Slovakia to attend an international conference on European Union enlargement.
One of the main goals of Saakashvili’s presidency is the reestablishment of Tbilisi’s authority over all of Georgia’s territory. Indeed–prior to his arrival in Batumi for the talks with Abashidze–Saakashvili stated that his "responsibility before the history of Georgia means that I must unify Georgia." The apparent outcome of the Ajaria crisis marks a quantum leap by Saakashvili’s administration towards fulfillment of the unity goal. Of course–the two most difficult stumbling blocks to reestablishing the territorial integrity of Georgia–political settlemen’s to the Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts–are likely to prove far more difficult to resolve than did the Ajaria question.