BATUMI (Eurasianet.org)–A mood of "no war–no peace" spread over the renegade Georgian region of Ajaria on Tuesday–amid calls by the international community for restraint. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili appeared in no mood for mediation–as he accused Ajaria of engaging in "banditry" and "treachery." In Batumi–despite the imposition of an economic blockade–Ajarian leaders are remaining steadfast in their refusal to submit to Tbilisi’s authority.
Since Ajarian police prevented Saakashvili from entering the region on March 14–both sides have mobilized for a fight–while probing for an opening to negotiate. Many observers believe that a prospect for compromise–if one exists at all–is very small. Both Saakashvili and Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze have shown no willingness to be the first to make concessions. Saakashvili remains insistent that Tbilisi’s authority take precedence over Ajaria’s–especially in the area of customs and tax revenue collection. Abashidze–meanwhile–rejects any move that could reduce his control over the regional apparatus.
Saakashvili has explicitly stated that he will not negotiate with Abashidze–casting the Tbilisi-Batumi dispute as a make-or-break moment for his administration’s credibility. He insists that Georgia’s sovereignty depends on Tbilisi’s ability to assert its authority over all regions of the country. "Either we now stand firm–all together–and once and for all eradicate banditry–feudalism–and treachery in Georgia … or we will no longer exist as a state," Saakashvili said.
Abashidze claims that Saakashvili’s aggressive stance is pushing the Ajarian leadership down a secessionist path. Unless Tbilisi moderates its position on revenue collection–Abashidze hinted that Ajaria–like Georgia’s other autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia–would seek to make a formal break with the central government. "We have already brought Abkhazia and South Ossetia to the stage of separatism; we have forced them to leave Georgia," Abashidze was quoted as saying by the Russian RIA news agency. "Ajaria should not be treated this way."
Georgian officials have stressed that they have no intention of resorting to arms to compel Batumi’s recognition of Tbilisi’s authority. However–Ajarian leaders suggested the possibility of a clash remained high. "We have sufficient strength to meet force with force," said Jemal Gogitidze–an Ajarian security official told the Russian Itar-Tass news agency.
Georgian leaders are presently striving to tighten an economic blockade they imposed on Ajaria on Monday. Georgian warships reportedly prevented at least 10 vessels from entering Batumi harbor. In addition–Turkey appears to be honoring a Georgian government request to close its border crossing into Ajaria. According to accounts from Tbilisi–the early effectiveness of the blockade has unsettled Abashidze. They point to reports that the Ajarian leader has placed several calls to Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania over the past 24 hours to bitterly complain about the closure of the Batumi port.
The dangerous escalation in tension has already prompted several mediation attempts. In a telephone conversation–US Secretary of State Colin Powell urged Saakashvili "not to allow this situation … to escalate," a State Department spokesman’said on Monday. Powell also contacted Russian officials–seeking assurances that Russian troops based in Batumi would not become involved in the dispute. In addition–US Ambassador to Georgia Richard Miles met with Georgian leaders to promote a negotiated settlement.
Solomon Passy–the Bulgarian foreign minister who currently serves as the chairman-in-office for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe–held telephone talks with Abashidze–calling on the Ajarian leader to help preserve the "peace–stability–and territorial integrity of Georgia."
Also on Monday–Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov arrived in Ajaria to act as a go-between for Ajarian and Georgian officials. Georgian officials view such initiatives with suspicion–given that the sympathies of Russian leaders lie with Abashidze. Luzhkov told the Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta that he embarked on his mission to Ajaria out of a desire to express solidarity with Abashidze. "We consider ourselves brothers and–at a time like this–one wants to stay close," Luzhkov said. The Moscow mayor added that the source of existing tension "does not come from Ajaria–it comes from Tbilisi." The newspaper report indicated Luzhkov didn’t coordinate his mission to Batumi with the Russian Foreign Ministry.
In Moscow–Russian politicians have been quick to criticize Saakashvili for the Georgian government’s "unpredictable policy." The deputy chairman of the Russian Duma’s International Affairs Committee–Konstantin Kosachev–suggested that Saakashvili’s unsuccessful attempt to enter Ajaria on Monday may have been an act designed to provoke a confrontation–the Itar-Tass news agency reported. Kosachev also suggested that much of the goodwill built during Saakashvili’s early February visit to Moscow had dissipated amid the Ajaria tension.
Observers in Tbilisi believe the pressure will build on Saakashvili in the coming days to take action to break the existing stalemate. Georgia’s parliamentary elections are scheduled for March 28. If the status quo remains in place on election day–most experts say Ajaria will not participate–therefore discrediting the results. A faulty election would be a political disaster for Saakashvili’s administration–perhaps permanently hampering its ability to promote reforms.
The March 28 elections are also exerting influence over Abashidze’s decisions–analysts believe. Elections in Ajaria are routinely rigged in favor of Abashidze and his political allies–observers explain. Saakashvili’s stated desire for a free and fair vote is seen as a threat to Abashidze’s stranglehold over Ajaria’s political system. Thus–many believe Abashidze is anxious to find an excuse to cancel the vote in the region. Kote Kemularia–Georgia’s ambassador to Russia–said Abashidze’s aim is "to wreck the parliamentary elections in Georgia" and so "obstruct the establishment of democracy in the country," Itar-Tass reported.
While Saakashvili undoubtedly feels a need to act–his options may be limited. Political analysts in Tbilisi say that the Georgian military has the capability to subdue Ajarian defense units–but only in the event that Russian forces in Ajaria remain neutral. Russian military commanders have said that the Batumi garrison will under no circumstances intervene in the Ajarian dispute. At the same time–Russian politicians have stated that Moscow cannot be a bystander.
Some Georgian political analysts believe that if Saakashvili attempts military action–Russian troops stationed in Batumi would come to the aid of Abashidze. Moscow has a geopolitical interest in promoting tension–even conflict–some Tbilisi experts maintain. Saakashvili has repeatedly stressed a desire to steer Georgia out of Russia’s sphere of influence and into the Western camp. A conflict in Ajaria would offer Moscow an opportunity to again insert itself into Georgian domestic affairs–and thus bring a halt to Georgia’s drift towards the West.