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Assessment for Adzhars in Georgia

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Adzhars in Georgia, 31 December 2003, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/469f3a805f.html [accessed 13 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Georgia Facts
Area:    69,700 sq. km.
Capital:    Tibilisi
Total Population:    5,190,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The divergent paths toward independence followed by the break-away regions of Georgia offer a good case study on the effects of leadership on political outcomes. Aslan Abashidze, had been able to cooperate with both post-independence Georgian regimes and, despite his authoritarian tendencies, had delivered a better life to his people than the leaders of either the Abkhaz or South Ossetians. Adzharia has avoided protracted strife and has experienced steady economic growth throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium.

All this has occurred despite a number of risk factors that would suggest that Adzharia was at a high risk for ethnic conflict: after independence, the government in Tblisi was initially quite repressive, especially concerning the religion of the Adzhars; the group is concentrated almost entirely in one area and has a high level of cohesion; there were serious armed conflicts elsewhere in the country that had the potential to "spill over"; there was a great deal of instability in the central government, which led to an intra-Georgian civil war; and finally, the various governments that have had jurisdiction over the Adzhars have been nominally democratic at best. Although a lot has changed in Georgia since 2003 – most notably with the fall of President Shevarnadze, the election of Saakashvili, and the fall of Abashidze after a tense standoff between Batumi and Tbilisi – the province did not descend into violence.

Abashidze held a pair of trump cards that helped him maintain stability and relative independence for his province. First, the extreme instability of Georgian national politics during the 1990s encouraged Tblisi to make concessions to the Adzhars in order to avoid creating trouble with yet another minority. Second, Adzharia enjoys good relationships with Russia and Turkey. Abashidze articulated strong pro-Russian positions, and encouraged Moscow to maintain a regiment (the 90th) in the province. The presence of Russian combat troops served as a convenient and powerful shield against radical agitators from Georgia proper. Turkey, the traditional protector of Muslims in the Caucasus, also offered an implicit security guarantee to Adzharia, but more importantly is the region's best hope for economic development. Turkish-Adzhar confraternity is promoted not only by religious ties, but also by a community of Georgian-speaking Turkish citizens, many of whom have family ties with Adzhars.

Georgia has been undergoing sweeping changes since the departure of Shevernadze and election of Saakashvili. Many Adzhars initially protested against Saakashvili's rise to the presidency in late 2003 (PROT03 = 4), but Saakashvili was nevertheless able to skillfully force Abashidze's departure without resorting to violence, and the province remains peaceful at the start of 2005. Adzharia never achieved the level of de facto independence held by Abkhazia and South Ossetia, yet bringing the province under direct control from Tbilisi was seen by many as a significant achievement for the new Georgian leadership.

Saakashvili and his executive remain committed to reuniting the remaining two regions of the country, and have not ruled out the use of force. While Adzharia appears to have overcome its most significant hurdle in that process, it is unclear how events in the rest of the country could affect relations between Adzhars and Tbilisi in the future. Nevertheless, Adzharia has defied repeated predictions of violence in the past and, with the past often acting as a strong predictor for the future, this bodes well for the Adzhars.

Analytic Summary

PLEASE NOTE: The following codes reflect the most recent MAR update covering the years up to and including 2003. It therefore does not include coding for changes that have occurred since Aslan Abashidze left power in 2004.

The Adzhars are a Muslim people dwelling in the autonomous region of Adzharia in south-western Georgia along the Black Sea (GROUPCON = 3). They are part of a religious minority that is not ethnoculturally distinct from ethnic Georgians (RELIG = 1), but Adzhars nonetheless possess a strong group identity (COHESX9 = 5). The capital of Adzharia is the important Black Sea port of Batumi, through which much of the oil from the Caspian Sea flows. Due to this and the general stability of the region, the Adzhars enjoy a great degree of economic prosperity and a higher standard living than the rest of Georgia.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the nationalist Gamsakhurdia regime in Tblisi made a concerted effort to stamp out ethnic differences and create a "Georgia for Georgians." In Adzharia this took the form of a campaign to replace Islam with an "atheist upbringing" throughout the region. This religious discrimination created a great deal of tension and calls from Adzhar nationalists to break apart from Georgia.

Until 2004, Adzharia enjoyed what was in effect de facto independence from Georgia and, therefore, no political or economic discrimination was recorded (POLDIS03 = 3; ECDIS03 = 0). However, the strategy they used to achieve that independence was quite different from the other autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where bloody rebellions broke out that have yet to be fully settled. By contrast, despite the extreme turbulence of post-Soviet Georgian politics, Abashidze maintained Adzharia as an island of stability. Since becoming leader of Adzharia in 1991 within a local political structure that remained Soviet and Communist, Abashidze demonstrated virtuoso political leadership. Unlike the rulers of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Abashidze was careful not to challenge, even rhetorically, the territorial integrity of the Georgian state; further, the autonomy he did demand for Adzharia was not based on self-determination. In fact, even when charting an independent course from both the Gamsakhurdia and Shevardnadze regimes, he has consistently denied that his government harbors any separatist agenda. This public position, coupled with the severe weakness of the Georgian government (since 1991 battered by one civil and two ethnic wars), made Shevardnadze willing to allow Abashidze wide latitude.

Despite his success, or rather because of it, Abashidze and the Adzhars faced powerful enemies in Georgia proper. Georgian nationalists well understood that Adzharia had achieved de facto independence, and feared that should the region develop economically it might opt for de jure sovereignty. Georgian extremist elements had therefore repeatedly sought to destabilize Adzharia, even by planning and executing terrorist acts. Abashidze had charged that Georgian security services had made at least three attempts to assassinate him.

After winning reelection as Georgia's president in April 2000, in part due to Abashidze's active endorsement, Shevardnadze credited the Adzhar leader's success to the fact that he "has always taken a stand for a single, strong and integral Georgia." In addition to reciprocating Abashidze's political support, Shevardnadze granted his colleague important substantive concessions, including allowing Adzharia to declare itself a free economic zone in November 1994. Most remarkably for a Muslim leader of an autonomous region, Abashidze emerged during the late 1990s as one of Georgia's most popular politicos. In the April 2000 elections, Abashidze even mounted a strong opposition to Shevardnadze in the nationwide presidential race. In a pre-election deal, Abashidze agreed to drop out of the race in exchange for full republic status for Adzharia, and some saw him as a possible successor to Shevarnadze. In May 2000, Georgia officially became a federation, and it was widely hoped that this would set a peaceful precedent that Abkhazia and South Ossetia could follow to settle their conflicts (thus far the "republic status" option has not proven attractive to either group, however).

A rare example of peaceful conflict resolution in 1990s Georgia, Adzharia is hardly an ideal of post-Communist political development. Abashidze followed what might be called the "Tito option": the achievement of ethnic peace through coercion. While there is no evidence that Adzharia's small Christian Georgian, Russian, or Armenian minorities were targeted for persecution, politics operated within an extremely circumscribed range defined by the Abashidze coterie. As demonstrated by elections held in November 1995 that were questionable at best, Abashidze was unwilling to submit his tenure to genuine democratic scrutiny.

The dominance of Abashidze's political machine until 2004 meant that his departure left a power vacuum, and Saakashvili's appointment of several individuals from Tbilisi to high-level positions in the regional capital have caused some resentment among the local population. Nevertheless, Adzaria has been re-integrated into Georgia's fold without serious complications, and Saakashvili has allowed the province to retain its autonomous status. However, the degree of this autonomy in practice will only become apparent over time.

References

Council of Europe (2001) "Honoring of obligations and commitments by Georgia", Committee on the Honouring of Obligations and Commitments by Member States of the Council of Europe (Monitoring Committee), Doc. 9191, 13 September 2001.

Freedom House, Nations in Transit, 2003

International Crisis Group, various reports on Georgia (2003-2005).

Lexis-Nexis, various articles (2001-2003)

Matveeva, Anna (2003), "Minorities in the South Caucasus" Working Group on Minorities, Commission on Human Rights (12-16 May 2003).

Mateeva, Anna (2002) "The South Caucasus: Nationalism, Conflict and Minorities" Minority Rights Group International Report.

Nodia, Ghia (2001) "Georgia's Membership in the Council of Europe: Achievements and Failures", Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development; compiled for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Toft, Monica Duffy (2003), The Geography of Ethnic Violence (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

United States State Department, Human Rights Reports: Georgia (2001-2003).

United States State Department, International Religious Freedom Report: Georgia (2001-2003).

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