Preventing armed conflict in Georgia (Adjara)

Summary

The diplomatic efforts of the Georgian and Russian governments helped prevent a war in the Autonomous Republic of Adjara.

The Adjara Autonomous Republic existed within Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic from 1921. Bordering Turkey and home to a sizeable Muslim population (particularly in the 1920s), Adjara was one of only two polities within the Soviet Union to enjoy political and administrative autonomy on the basis of the confessional outlook of the population – the other being the Jewish Autonomous District in Russia.1 The Georgian state was severely weakened by the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia during the early 1990s. In this context, Aslan Abashidze rose to power in Adjara. Over the ensuring decade, he exploited the complex situation in Georgia to build an authoritarian regime and consolidate his control of the region. This included raising paramilitary forces, collecting revenue from the port of Batumi, and withholding taxes from Tbilisi. This strategy proved to be highly effective (and profitable to Abashidze) until the Rose Revolution of November 2003 brought a new Georgian administration to power. The new leadership refused to tolerate the complex relationship that had developed with Adjara and, in March 2004, placed a blockade on the area until all paramilitary forces were disarmed. In response, Abashidze declared a state of emergency, mobilised reservists, and cracked down on opposition.2 Members of the Georgian government were prevented from entering Adjara by police and paramilitaries in March 2004, preceding a crisis in which Adjarian forces destroyed two bridges and a railway line to cut the region off from Georgia entirely. In response, the Georgian armed forces conducted their largest ever military exercise along the Adjarian border, watched by over 1,000 Adjarian troops.3

Faced with an increasingly authoritarian regime and the prospect of war, the Adjarian population took to the streets in growing numbers to demonstrate against Abashidze’s rule. On the 5 May, a delegation from the Georgian government crossed into Adjara to hold talks with Abashidze’s interior minister, who agreed to stand his personal forces down in return for personal safety. The same day, demonstrators took control of central Batumi. These developments inspired an unlikely phone call between the Georgian president and Vladimir Putin, who agreed to offer asylum to Abashidze to help diffuse the crisis. That evening, the head of the Russian Security Council arrived in Georgia to hold talks with the Adjarian leadership. The next morning, Abashidze stepped down and fled to Moscow, ending the crisis before it could escalate into an armed conflict.4



1 Zurab Tchiaberashvili. “Ajara: A Case in Conflict Avoidance.” In Ali Askerov, Stefan Brooks, & Lasha Tchantouridzé. The Post-Soviet Conflicts: The Thirty Years’ Crisis. (Lexington Books, 2020) p.88

2 Ibid. pp.84-5

3 Giorgi Gogia. “Georgia’s woes are far from over.” The Guardian. (26 March 2004) Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/mar/26/theobserver (Accessed 14/11/2021)

4 Tchiaberashvili. “Ajara.” p.85

Start Year

2004

End Year

Present

Location

Autonomous Republic of Adjara, Georgia

UN Regional Group

Eastern Europe

Type of Conflict

Risk of a vertical (state-based) intrastate conflict

Type of Initiative

Diplomacy

Main Implementing Organisation(s)

The governments of Georgia and Russia, local people and organisations

Impact

Lasting

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