The departure of Aslan Abashidze from the Georgia autonomous region of Ajaria on Wednesday, may mean relations between Armenia and its neighbor can proceed more smoothly than recent conflict in Ajaria has allowed.
"Ajarian Lion" left.
Abashidze fled for Moscow, under threats from Georgian president Mikhail Saakasvili that military force would be used if necessary to achieve a settlement between Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, and the troubled region.
Saakashvili went to the Ajaria port city of Batumi late Wednesday night where he proclaimed that “Ajaria is free” and that “its dictator left”.
Tensions between the region and Georgia proper have been strained since Saakashvili was elected to office in January, following the overthrow of the government of Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze.
Following a weekend meeting with President Robert Kocharyan in Yerevan in early March, a Saakashvili motorcade was fired upon as the Georgian president attempted to enter Ajaria.
In retaliation, the Georgian president imposed an embargo on Ajaria. The sanction lasted only two days, but, because its main city, Batumi, is a Black Sea port, the threat to restricted trade was felt severely in Armenia. About 90 percent of Armenia’s imports and exports are dependent on Georgia’s ports, the nearest of which is Batumi. More than 1,000 freight cars of food and fuel per month enter Armenia, having originated in Batumi.
(Due to closed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan, Armenia’s only waterway outlet, except via distant Iran, is through Georgia.)
Abashidze, 66, has been the strong arm of Ajaria since 1991 and, in 1995, his Georgian Revival Union became the second largest political party in Georgia’s National Assembly.
The recent clashes with Saakashvili reached the boiling point last month, when two bridges connecting Georgia and Ajaria over the Choloki River were blown up on Abashidze’s orders.
Some 300,000 residents make up Ajaria, including about 11,000 Armenians, most of whom live in Batumi. Earlier this week masses took to the streets to demand Abashidze’s removal, a condition that was achieved with help from his friend, National Security Council of Russia’s Igor Ivanov, who gave the leader sanctuary in Moscow.
Abashidze’s departure was welcomed by official Yerevan, which repeatedly had been calling sides for a dialog.
"Armenia welcomes the consistent and decisive policy of the Georgian authorities that has helped to overcome that serious obstacle,” said Hamlet Gasparyan, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia. "The denouement of this problem is another important step on the way of establishing stability and peace in Georgia and thus on the entire South Caucasus.”
Stepan Safaryan, an analyst at the Armenian Center for National and International studies said that the outcome of the Georgia-Ajaria confrontation was predictable.
Saakashvili after his third victory.
“Some people expected Saakashvili to start ‘ Georgia’s unification’ with its hottest spot, Abkhazia,” the analyst said. “However he began with Ajaria and will apparently use the ‘Ajaria model’ for bridging relations with Abkhazia and South Osetia. Besides, the leadership of those regions might realize now that in case of their confrontation they probably will follow Abashidze’s fate.”
In Ajaria, the Armenian community has been divided over the region’s political conflict – some siding with Abashidze and some with Saakashvili.
“I accept as very normal what happened, because time goes on and the new and young generation come to change the old,” 73-year old Batumi resident Gevorg Khachatryan told ArmeniaNow. “I can not say anything negative concerning Abashidze’s regime. Besides, the situation in Ajaria was more calm than in other Georigian regions.”
Georgian Armenian Arthur Ohanisyan, a reporter for Ajaria TV, left his position to join demonstrators who opposed Abashidze.
“We are tired of seeing how Ajaria TV only praises Abashidze,” he said. “That was the reason why we couldn't continue working there. Our other colleagues followed our example and are leaving the company one after another.”
In Tbilisi yesterday (May 6), the Georgian Parliament adopted a decree according to which the President of Georgia was authorized to cancel the current Ajaria Parliament. A special governmental commission was set up chaired by Saakashvili to prepare new elections of the Ajaria Parliament which would be held within five to six weeks.
The Armenian and foreign analysts are calling the end of the standoff between Tbilisi and Batumi “the third bloodless victory of Saakashvili” – a reference to the resignation of Shevardnadze, and to Saakashvilis’s election.
(ArmeniaNow reporter Suren Deheryan contributed to this report from Tbilisi.)