Saakashvili and Abashidze: 5 reasons behind Georgia-Adzharia conflict

Georgia's central government lost control over many of its constituent areas after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The autonomies of South Ossetia and Abkhazia proclaimed independence. Adzharia is about to follow the suit. Separatist sentiments are also strong in the areas inhabited by Mingrels, Svans and Kistins. Experts say the country is close to splitting into ethnic zones, i.e. Georgia can again shrink down to the size of the medieval period in its history.

With the advent of President Mikhail Saakashvili and the new government, Georgia began making moves to restore its territorial integrity, i.e. to ensure Tbilisi's sovereignty over Abkhazia, South Ossetia and to consolidate sovereignty over Adzharia. The Georgian president stepped up these efforts after visiting the United States in February 2004.

Mr. Saakashvili secured the USA's support for his efforts to regain control over the entire country and have the Russian military bases withdrawn from Georgia. This April, Pentagon experts are expected to start training Georgian brigades, which will, apparently, be deployed in the rebellious regions and near the Russian bases and peacekeepers.

Reports saying that Georgia's troops are ready to enter Adzharia testify to this line of the new authorities. Adzharian leader Aslan Abashidze says Tbilisi has "conspired a military action to punish Adzharia as it punished Abkhazia and Ossetia." Adzharia had been the quietest of all Georgia's autonomies. It is home to Adzharians, an ethnic group of Georgian origin. However, unlike Georgians, who are Orthodox Christians, modern Adzharians are Islam believers. These ethnic groups also differ somewhat in their household traditions.

In 6th - 4th centuries BC, Adzharia was part of the western Georgian kingdom of Colchis, which is known from a Greek myth about Agronauts. From the late 10th century, Adzharia was part of a united Georgia (Sakartvelo). In the mid 15th century, it belonged to the powerful Abashidze clan.

In the 1570s, Adzharia fell under the Ottoman Empire's jurisdiction. In 1878, Adzharia was handed over to the Russian Empire in line with a decision adopted at the Berlin Congress after the Russian-Turkish war. After the collapse of the empire, Adzharia became an autonomous republic within Georgia. (Mamed Abashidze, the current Adzharian leader's grandfather, was the speaker of Adzharia's first ever parliament from 1918 to 1921). The 1921 Kars Treaty signed by Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia defined Adzharia as an autonomous republic.

Living standards in Adzharia have always been much better than anywhere else in Georgia. Modern Adzharia is a developed industrial republic. There is an oil refinery, a ship-building, machine-building and electromechanical plants, clothing factories, tobacco, tea and fruit processing facilities in the republic.

Adzharia is a junction of important sea, railway, motor and air routes of Georgia, which link the country to the rest of the world.

The Batumi sea port has been a municipal company belonging to Adzharia since 1997. The port is equipped to process wet goods, general and dry cargoes, and containers. In 2003, some 7 million tons of oil were shipped in the Batumi port. Oil products make up about 70% of Batumi's overall cargo turnover.

The railway ferry service, which opened in the port in 1998, is of vital importance for Georgia, as well for all the Black Sea countries, economically and politically. The ferry's capacity is 4 million tons of cargoes a year. The ferry service, for example, reduces the time of cargo deliveries from Hong Kong to Rotterdam by 16-17 days.

Adzharia has been a semi-independent republic since 1991, when the then Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia's supporters made an attempt on Mr. Abashidze's life. The Adzharian leader was injured. However, all armed groups deployed on Adzharian territory, which were opposed to Mr. Abashidze, were disarmed after the assassination attempt. The Georgian national guard's attempt to invade Adzharia was also thwarted. Georgian tanks were stopped on the border. Adzharia was, thereby, untouched by the civil war.

Mr. Abashidze maintained rather friendly relations with the next Georgian leader, Eduard Shevardnadze. Mr. Abashidze was the leader of the pro-Shevardnadze "Revival" political party.

Mr. Saakashvili came to power in Georgia after the overturn of President Shevardnadze. He won the presidential election promoting the idea of nationalising all major industrial facilities and strategically important industries. The new president also insisted on regaining control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Adzharia reacted by announcing the state of emergency and closing the borders, the moves that could again put Georgia on the brink of civil war.

There are 18,000 troops in Georgia today. There are 10 combat aircraft, 8 helicopters (6 US-made and 2 Turkish copters), 7 patrol vessels, 120 armoured vehicles and 100 artillery guns in use. Georgia's M-day force is about 100,000 men.

Adzharia has a 2,000-strong police force (including 300 mounted police), 8,000 militiamen (local militiamen usually armed with hunting guns and old rifles). There is also a Russian military base. Locals, many of who hold Russian citizenship, make up 80% of the base personnel.

Mr. Abashidze once said that Russia simply must protect Adzharia. "There is the Kars Treaty, which obliges Turkey to protect the Adzharian autonomy. There is also an earlier Moscow treaty, stipulating similar obligations for Russia," said Mr. Abashidze.

Under the Kars Treaty, Turkey and Russia can send troops to Adzharia and Nakhichevan (Azerbaijan's enclave on Armenian territory) in the event of third countries' military invasion of these regions. Unal Cevikoz, Turkey's ambassador to Azerbaijan, also recalled the treaty on March 17, 2004. Mr. Cevikoz said the treaty continued to be in force.

Experts believe Georgia's sending troops to Adzharia may trigger a prolonged armed and political conflict, which will also involve Turkey, Russia and, possibly, the USA.

Experts suggest the following reasons behind the conflict between the central government and Adzharia.

First, seeking to regain territorial integrity, Georgia does not recognise the Adzharian government.

Second, Georgia is set to have the Russian bases pulled out from its territory (from Batumi and Akhalkalaki) and Russian peacekeepers from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Tbilisi believes tensions will help it achieve this objective.

Three, Tbilisi believes Adzharia has grown too independent economically and politically. The republic, for example, refused to pay taxes to the central budget, pleading Georgia's indebtedness to Adzharia.

Four, the Georgian economy being in dire straits, Tbilisi is seeking control over the Batumi port to ensure economic revival.

Five, the unnecessary unification of Georgia, Abkhazia, Adzharia and South Ossetia caused the savage ethnic conflicts in the 1990s.

Russia helped deter a conflict around Adzharia. Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov also made his contribution as a mediator. The Georgian and Adzharian leaders reached a series of agreements through Mr. Luzhkov's mediation. As a result, the central government lifted economic sanctions against the autonomy, while the latter ended the state of emergency.

However, the conflict has not been resolved completely and it can restart any moment.

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