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But the mountainous regions of Ajara had neither tangerines nor sea. The residents of these regions, living in a “closed zone” in a border region, thanked their lucky stars when Ajaran Regional Party First Secretary Vakhtang Papunidze implemented his idea of growing “Samsun," one of the most expensive varieties of tobacco, in his native Kedi region. More generally, Papunidze’s name is associated with many positive things, such as the building of new districts in Batumi, the reconstruction of the Batumi boardwalk, and the opening of high-rise hotels on the sea shore.
But, as often happens, he bet on the wrong horse, and later as rector of the Tbilisi Financial Institute, where he was transferred after the coming to power of the new Georgian party first secretary Jumber Patiashvili, he committed suicide, according to rumors because of a criminal case brought against Patiashvili’s main competitor, Suliko Khabeishvili. But this was really the only serious scandal to hit Ajara. Usually everything flowed calmly in this paradise where the sea met the mountains.
The situation changed in the end of the 1980s, and it changed not just in Ajara, but throughout the whole country. The powerful wave of the national liberation movement swept over Georgia, and by 1990 it became clear that the Soviet system could not withstand it. Not immediately, but gradually, the leaders of the movement began to shake up the situation in the regions, and if in 1988 the secretary of the Kobuleti regional committee could take the liberty of telling Zviad Gamsakhurdia to get lost, after April 9, 1989 nobody could take such a liberty. It was indicative that while the first demonstration in Batumi took place in the Adlia stadium outside the city, and after April 1989 demonstrations took place right in Lenin Square in front of the party regional committee building.
It was a heady time, and the leaders of the national liberation movement were constantly thinking up new extravagances, such as tearing down Lenin’s statue. This was a real theatrical show, with the participation of thousands of people who the evening before were loyal supporters of Soviet power. The authorities practically dissolved themselves, and they observed from the party building windows the movements of these revolutionaries who came out of nowhere, preparing themselves for a new life in a capitalist tomorrow. There was no resistance, and not only because the majority of the functionaries sympathized with the people in the street.
According to the memoirs of Murman Beridze, who that that time worked in the apparatus of the Party Central Committee, when during a Committee meeting devoted to the Autumn electoral campaign in 1990 one of the regional committee secretaries proposed a plan for victory in his region, he was stopped in his tracks by the First Secretary, Givi Gumaridze: “You seriously thing you can win?!"
In general, the situation in the country was strange: the Communist Party, with an enormous apparatus of ideological workers and control of all the mass media, practically dissolved itself. All things considered, the victory of the “Round Table” (Zviad Gamsakhurdia’s political organization) was inevitable. It is interesting that the election of Gamsakhurdia as the first President of Georgia did not at all mean victory at the local level, since local elections were not held together with parliamentary ones. Until the introduction of the institution of prefects, the party elite still governed the country in the regions. An interesting situation resulted in the autonomies.
If the leadership of the South Ossetian autonomous district engaged in open confrontation with the Tbilisi authorities, and clashes took place in the corridors of power in Sukhumi between the supporters and opponents of the new authorities, the young and energetic chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Ajara and simultaneously First Secretary of the Ajaran regional committee of the party, Tengiz Khakhba, skillfully balanced between the Scylla and Charybdis of the revolutionaries and the party guard.
Perhaps under different circumstances Khakhva would have been able to stay in power, but he was too honest for the political games in Georgia at that time. Many years later, as deputy chairman of the Russian Federal Properties Fund, he would be removed from his post for being one of the only bureaucrats to refuse to testify in the case against Khodorkovsky. But that’s a different story.
At that time a struggle for power began in Ajara of an intensity that could only occur during a vacuum of power. The best known Batumi joke at that time was as follows: “We used to think that Lenin was born in Simbirsk, but now we’re sure that his place of birth was Shuakhevi (the regional center in mountainous Ajara)." The thing was that for a long time Shuakhevi was the only place in Georgia where a Lenin statue still stood in the central square.
And it was no coincidence that it was the first secretary of the Shuakhevi regional party committee, Ioseb Khimshiashvili, the descendent of a prince who wrote his name into Georgian history in golden letters, decided that providence had given him the opportunity to take power by right of birth, replacing on the land of his ancestors the half-breed Khakhva. A “Committee for the Salvation of Ajara” was created on his initiative, and it was timed well. Georgia had just declared that its withdrawal from the union government, and the prince-communist certainly bet on support from Moscow.
The newly elected President of Georgia had to take extreme measures. It must be admitted that Zviad Gamsakhurdia resolved this problem brilliantly: as a balance to the rebellious prince who had failed to demonstrate his loyalty to the president, Gamsakhurdia brought his own candidate to Batumi: Deputy Minister of Consumer Service of Georgia Aslan Abashidze. The brilliance of the solution was that Aslan Abashidze was also the descendent of a princely line, and his grandfather, Memed Abashidze, was a member of the first parliament, the Ajaran Mejlis.
It was only later that court historians would inflate the rank of Memed Abashidze, who himself was repressed in the 1930s, calling him the chairman of parliament, which is not true. But the fact that Aslan’s grandfather left his mark in the history of the region is incontrovertible. The only problem was that Aslan Abashidze was not a member of the Supreme Soviet of Ajara, but nobody at the time paid attention to such insignificant details, all the more so since the Georgian President declared to the deputies that whoever supports the independence of Georgia should vote for Abashidze.
This step was not much to the liking of the democratic community or to the supporters of the communists, but the deputies did not dare go against the will of the great leader. Demonstrations by thousands of people from the mountainous regions of Ajara and the Muslim clergy could change nothing, and only served to solidify the position of the newly elected head of Ajara.
A direct participant in the events of those days, now a famous blogger and then a beginning journalist, Tina Mzhavanadze, wrote about this demonstration in her essay “A Reporter’s Sunny Day in the City of B." Thus on April 22, 1991 Aslan Ibraimovich Abashidze became the head of Ajara for the next 13 years. And having named as Abashidze’s deputy Nodar Imnadze, an active leader in the revolutionary movement and former Stalinist who was a well known figure in the city, the President of Georgia left Batumi with a feeling of accomplishment. All the more so since the two central streets of the beautiful resort town, previously named Lenin Street and Stalin Street, were soon renamed for Konstantine Gamsakhurdia and Memed Abashidze, respectively.
It cannot be said that Aslan Abashidze was unknown in the city, as unlike Ioseb Khimshiashvili he grew up in the very center of Batumi. An outgoing boy who had problems with his spine despite his small size, he made a very strong impression on his peers. It was as if he radiated strength, and unlike his father, the highly respected builder Ibraim Abashidze, a quiet and warmhearted person, Aslan had a turbulent temperament. People of the older generation recall a story about how Aslan wounded a passer-by in the leg as the result of an accidental gunshot. Mind you, this was in the 1950s.
As often happens, despite the hooliganism of his youth Aslan Abashidze cleaned up his act and became a respectable member of society, going from a university teacher to Ajaran Minister of Consumer Service, after which he was brought to Tbilisi as Deputy Minister of Consumer Service of Georgia. If anybody thinks that the Ministry of Consumer Service was a minute and insignificant agency, I would hurry to correct this misconception.
In previous parts of this essay I discussed the appearance in Georgia of a class of entrepreneurs called the “tsekhoviki," or underground industrialists. It was precisely through the Ministry of Consumer Service that the vast majority of these tsekhoviki “legalized” their activities, naturally with the required tribute to the leadership of this agency.
Aslan himself was a talented and extravagant person. He painted remarkably, loved to cook, which he also did very well, and he even cut his children’s hair, or at least that of young Giorgi. On the whole this was a townsman in the best sense of the word. A happily married father and man of authority in the region, descended from an ancient Imeretian princely line, born and bred in Ajara, he seemed the most appropriate leader of the region.
If they ever make a monument to Aslan Abashidze, I would advise the sculptor to use the idea that Ernst Neizvestny employed in his renowned Khrushchev monument, using black and white marble.
The first black spot in Aslan Abashidze’s biography took place on April 30, 1991. On that day, the residents of Batumi, frightened by hitherto never felt underground tremors – this was the strongest earthquake in these parts in the memory of the current generation – were afraid to go back into their homes, especially the twelve story apartment blocks that stand on the central square of the city.
The weather was fine and people were chatting, mainly about the earthquake of course, when shots rang out from the building of the Supreme Soviet of Ajara. Soon the news spread around the city that Nodar Imnadze, the deputy chairman, had been killed.
According to witnesses, Imnadze entered the chairman’s office in an intoxicated state and let loose a burst of automatic rifle fire in the direction of Aslan Abashidze. Murman Omanidze, the vice-premier of the Georgian government, was in the office at that moment. According to some accounts Nodar Imnadze was wounded by the vice-premier’s body guard and then finished off by Abashidze. According to other accounts Abashidze dispatched Imnadze without any assistance.
Nodar Imnadze was a striking example of a revolutionary who could not fit into the system of power. In order to consider the jurisprudential aspects of this story, I would mention that even the prosecutor of Mikheil Saakashvili’s time refused to bring a criminal case based on this episode, admitting that Abashidze’s actions were necessary self-defense. But thus began the undivided reign of Aslan Abashidze in Ajara.
Thirteen years later, on April 30, 2004, Nodar Imnadze’s daughter Nata gathered a demonstration by the building of the city court dedicated to the anniversary of her father’s death. This was the start of the revolution in Ajara.
The period of Aslan Abashidze’s rule in Ajara can be fairly neatly divided into three stages: the dawn – the time of Zviad Gamsakhurdia; the zenith – from the start of the civil war in
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