Georgian officials are moving swiftly to erase Aslan Abashidze's legacy in Ajaria. Today, the five-cross Georgian national flag flies at the residential compound where Abashidze and other top regional officials lived. Black-clad Ajarian paramilitaries who used to guard government buildings in Batumi have disappeared, and the Ajarian capital is now teaming with Georgian soldiers. Meanwhile, Ajarian checkpoints have been demolished and traffic is once again flowing between the region and Georgia proper.
President Mikheil Saakashvili has confirmed that regional elections will be held June 20. Since Abashidze went into exile on May 6, Ajaria has been under direct presidential rule. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Some Georgian officials have asserted that following the departure of Abashidze, who during his decade-plus in power transformed the region into a virtual fiefdom, Ajaria is becoming "normal again." However, many regional residents are uneasy about presidential rule, expressing concern that Tbilisi may take advantage of the transition period to curtail many of Ajaria's "autonomous" privileges.
Although, Saakashvili and other top government officials have repeatedly vowed that Ajaria will retain its autonomous status within Georgia, a presidential-appointed provisional council has already made substantial changes in the regional government structure. Among the provisional council's first steps May 7 was the scrapping of the post that Abashidze occupied -- Ajaria's chief executive. Two days later, the council announced amendments to the Ajarian constitution to give the Georgian president effective veto power over top local political appointments, including mayors and district administration heads. In addition, the provisional council streamlined the regional government, abandoning the bicameral legislature used by Abashidze in favor of a unicameral body consisting of 30 representatives.
Some political allies of Saakashvili, such as Republican Party leader David Berdzenishvili, have voiced a preference for abolishing Ajaria's autonomous status. However, Levan Varshalomidze, Saakashvili's representative in Ajaria, has dismissed such an idea as "destructive." At the same time, Varshalomidze stressed that changes will establish a clear-cut division of power between the central and regional government. In particular, Ajaria's prosecutor's office, along with other regional law-enforcement agencies, will become directly subordinate to the central government.
Concurrent with the administrative shake-up, Georgian authorities have arrested close associates of Abashidze. So far, six high-ranking officials from Abashidze's authority have been taken into custody, including Roland Beridze, head of security for the former mayor of Batumi, and Giorgi Kupreishvili, the former commander of the Ajaria-based interior ministry troops. Tbilisi has additionally taken action to dismantle Abashidze's political machine, the Revival Union. The party -- which during the March parliamentary elections failed to clear the 7 percent barrier necessary to secure seats in the legislature has effectively stopped functioning. Authorities in Tbilisi recently closed the Revival Union's office in the Georgian capital.
In a further move to discredit Abashidze, Georgian authorities organized a public auction at Batumi's sports stadium of cars, paintings, furniture and about 200 pet dogs belonging to the former Ajarian strongman. The auction was followed by a pop concert.
At a ceremony marking the resumption of vehicular transit across the Choloki bridge, which marks Ajaria's administrative border with Georgia, Saakashvili vowed that "never again" would there be a "dividing line" that separates the region from the rest of the country. "Nor will we allow anyone to establish local structures in Ajaria that constantly mistreat" the local population, Saakashvili said.
While Tbilisi works to reorganize Ajaria's political structure, Saakashvili's administration has become embroiled in a dispute with the Council of Europe. The origins of the row can be traced to a May 2 Council of Europe statement on the confrontation between Abashidze loyalists and pro-Tbilisi forces. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In the statement, Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer said Tbilisi had "lost the ability to dialogue" with Batumi.
On May 9, Saakashvili assailed the Council of Europe, and Schwimmer personally, bluntly stating that the May 2 statement was wrong to suggest that "both sides were equally to blame" for the confrontation. "It [Schwimmer's comment] is the position of an arrogant bureaucrat with a bloated salary who does not care at all," Saakashvili said during a speech at Batumi university.
Subsequently, Georgian Foreign Ministry officials suggested that the Plamen Nikolov, Schwimmer's personal representative in Georgia, might be declared persona non grata, if the Council of Europe did not act immediately to recall him. The council said May 11 that it had not received any communication from the Georgian Foreign Ministry concerning Nikolov.
Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze, who will attend a Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly session May 15, acted to contain the fallout from Saakashvili's criticism of Schwimmer, saying that Georgia continued to "value relations" with the council. She went on to suggest that Saakashvili's harsh words were the product of disappointment. "I am sure the president's reaction was prompted precisely by the failure of an international organization [the Council of Europe] to make an appropriate and correct assessment of events," the Rustavi 2 television channel reported Burjanadze as saying May 10.
Daan van der Schriek is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.