GEORGIA: Future of two remaining autonomous regions uncertain
Vladimir Beron «View Bio

A five month-long standoff between Georgian President Michael Saakashvili and the Chairman of the Supreme Council of Adjaria, Aslan Abashidze, came to a head in early May, in what has been widely dubbed as the second Rose Revolution in Georgia within half a year. On May 5, Abashidze and a small entourage were hastily flown to Moscow, escorted by the Russian Security Council Chairman, Igor Ivanov. The move followed several days of anti-Abashidze popular protests in the local capital Batumi, but with little violence. Large segments of the Adjarian security apparatus switched loyalties to Tbilisi.

The ousting of Abashidze, who had run the Black Sea province since 1991 as his personal fiefdom, is a major step toward the consolidation of the fractured Georgian state, which has been plagued by separatist conflicts ever since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Abkhazia, another volatile region on the Black Sea, and South Ossetia remain steadfastly opposed to any authority by Tbilisi over their internal affairs, and the Georgian government is hardly in control in some northern parts of the country such as the Pankisi and Kodori gorges. Tensions remain high in the ethnically mixed Bolnisi and Tsalka districts, with have large Azeri and Armenian populations.

The key difference between the aforementioned troubled areas and Adjaria is that the majority of the population in the latter is comprised of ethnic Georgians. Thus, the long-running conflict was basically centered over control of the lucrative tax proceeds from the Batumi port terminal, which has a capacity of exporting some 200,000 barrels of oil daily. Abashidze succeeded in clinging to power for so long thanks to his tight control over the local security forces and support from Russia, which maintains a military base in Adjaria. At the end, the swelling of opposition to his autocratic rule among the local population made Abashidze"s ouster possible, a fact that highlights Tbilisi"s glaring shortcomings when it comes to its ability to force back into the fold any one of the restless regions.

In stark contrast to Adjaria, ethnic Georgians are in a minority in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which have leaderships that are seeking to become officially subjects of the Russian Federation. Abkhazia is home to another Russian military base, and it has an armed force that has proven in the past to be more than capable of keeping the Georgian army at bay. A Russian peacekeeping contingent operates along the internal border between Abkhazia and Georgia proper, and a U.N. observer mission (UNIMOG) assigned to the conflict between the two sides is also on the ground. Armed clashes between pro-Tbilisi guerillas and Abkhazian security forces still take place occasionally in the region"s most southern Gali district, which has a large ethnic Georgian population.

South Ossetia is also a major problem area for the central government, as there is no indication that the local leadership is willing to consider steps for normalization of relations with Tbilisi. In fact, during a May 20 gathering in the local capital Tskhinvali, South Ossetian nationalists adopted an appeal addressed to President Vladimir Putin and the chairman of the Russian parliament, Boris Gryzlov, for recognition of the breakaway republic as an independent state, to be followed by accession into the Russian Federation. The gathering was staged on the occasion of the 12th anniversary of the killings of Ossetian refugees by Georgian forces, and the participants declared that only Russia is capable of guaranteeing security and economic prosperity for the local population.

Following the Abashidze ouster, President Saakashvili made a number of public comments, boldly predicting that the separatist regime in Abkhazia will be overthrown much as the Adjarian ruler was, but that is an optimistic view given the current conditions. It is reasonable to expect, however, that the Abkhazian leadership will come under considerable pressure from the international community in the run-up to the October elections for a local president to show a real improvement in relations with Tbilisi.

There are also fresh signs of efforts for encouragement of the ethnic Georgian minority in South Ossetia to mobilize in opposition to the local establishment. These efforts are being spearheaded by the Georgian youth movement Kamara, which was instrumental in organizing public support for the popular uprising that last November Georgia"s perennial leader, Edward Shevardnadze. Again, the circumstances in South Ossetia are markedly different, and any hopes for a third Rose Revolution are likely to be premature.

The reunification of Georgia, as proclaimed unequivocally by President Saakashvili in the immediate aftermath of the Abashidze ouster, is unlikely to be around the corner just yet. Adjaria is a promising start, though the region is still rather unstable, and much depends on the outcome of the elections for a local leader, scheduled for June 20. Abkhazia and South Ossetia will undoubtedly watch closely the developments in Adjaria over the next few months, and especially whether Tbilisi will make good on its promises to respect the autonomous status of that area. If the young Saakashvili government proves incapable of refraining from interference in Adjarian affairs, separatist sentiments in the remaining breakaway regions will harden.

Vladimir Beron is Senior Risk Analyst with the international risk management group Sentigence.