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Abashidze used the peaceful period of Zviad’s rule to the fullest to strengthen his establishment of personal power, appointing his relatives and personal friends to all the key posts in the autonomy. He harshly, but not brutally, crushed the opposition, showing who was the king of his castle. In those days the head of Ajara could be seen in a popular coffee house in the seafront, where he met with residents, mainly his friends from childhood. Abashidze did in essence what all rulers in the post-Soviet space were supposed to do: he took control of the financial flows and property.
Batumi in that period was the sole window to Turkey for the entire post-Soviet area, and tariffs for transport of goods were set arbitrarily on both sides of the border. To Turkey went mainly Soviet photo and optical technology, gold, and anything else that could still be brought out from the underground stashes of the empty Soviet shops. Turkish consumer goods flowed in the opposite direction. Soon the first large-scale entrepreneurs began exporting to Turkey lumber, coal, cotton and other of the raw materials with which the post-Soviet states were so well endowed. Customs profits grew exponentially. The Batumi Port was no less profitable.
These sources of income alone were enough to create a powerful economic basis for the regime. In principle they became the basis for the flowering of Aslan Abashidze’s clan, and a curse for Ajara. It should be particularly noted that during the time of Abashidze’s rule not a single tetri went to the central Georgian budget.
Income from customs and from the port could well be compared to the profits from energy resources of certain dictatorial regimes. When money appears practically from nowhere, the attitude towards it is the same.
In the first phase, Abashidze tried to use at least part of the money for the development of the region. Several bridges were built, the main building of the university was remodeled, a port kindergarten, a new customs terminal, tennis courts and the “Oasis” hotel complex were built, and an opera troupe and a children’s opera were created. This, I suggest, is the entire list of projects completed during the Abashidze period. It’s possible I’ve left something out, but even then you have to admit that this is not a large list by today’s standards. But at that time, when nothing at all was being done in Georgia, even this made a big impression.
The fact that the kindergarten and the university building were exclusively for show in the direct sense of that word – that is, children didn’t go to this kindergarten and university students didn’t study in the remodeled auditoriums – was beside the point. Abashidze’s hours long speeches on Ajara Television made an indelible impression, especially on visitors. Plans for a white city, where all the buildings and the taxis would be white, and a free economic zone and so on and so forth had a strong effect on many people.
True, Batumi residents were already calling Abashidze a “TV star” and Ajara Television “Aslankino," but there was no irritation. To the contrary, they felt respect and even thankfulness towards Abashidze. And there were reasons for this.
The main reason was the prevention of civil war in Ajara. In the beginning of 1992, having deposed the legal government of Georgia, the “Mkhedrioni” and the National Guard headed west, plundering everything in their path. Naturally Ajara seemed a tasty morsel to the plunderers, especially since it was rumored that dollars grew on trees there.
Drawing up to the administrative border at Choloki, the dashing warriors to their great disappointment were met by Russian tanks and the special forces of the Ajaran Interior Ministry and KGB. They decided not to engage in a fight, the outcome of which was already decided, and took off in the other direction. It was only later that many residents of Ajara would say that Aslan was saving first of all himself, and they were correct to say it.
But at that moment Abashidze was a national hero. Legends spread far and wide all over Georgia about the just and wise ruler, and there was a certain truth to these legends. At that time, when all of Georgia sat without electricity, there was light in Batumi, and although the bread crises also touched Ajara, it lasted for a shorter time than anywhere else in Georgia. The main staples did not disappear in Batumi, and this was at a period when the rest of the country was facing a real threat of starvation.
In essence it was from this moment that Abashidze became the genuine leader of the region, enjoying the support of the majority of the population. He was christened the “Ajaran Lion” in the Russian press, and Russian President Boris Yeltsin awarded the Ajaran Supreme Soviet Chairman the military rank of Major General of the Russian Armed Forces. Of course, way back in 1992 the minor fact that Abashidze was the head of a region of a different state and not even a citizen of the Russian Federation didn’t bother them. To its own surprise, the Kremlin had found a reliable ally and a powerful lever to put pressure on Tbilisi, and Aslan’s system worked with doubled energy with the help of friendly bayonets.
Abashidze managed to create in Ajara a kind of quasi-state model, and with time he solidified its borders, and not just with Turkey, but also on the Choloki River with the rest of Georgia. This quasi-state had its own armed forces – the 25th brigade of the Georgian Army always answered exclusively to Abashidze – and its own navy of coast guard ships. It had its own national guard, as Abashidze’s personal bodyguard had more than three thousand troops, and its own ministry of foreign affairs with under the signboard of the Assembly of European Regions, and even a Senate and a Parliament.
Aslan Ibraimovich began to proudly call himself the Head of Ajara, and the treasury of this state, being in essence his own treasury, never knew a deficit, unlike the constantly sequestered Georgian central budget. In domestic policy, as a true Batumi-ite, Abashidze ruled according to the ideals of “Friendship of Peoples," creating many diaspora organizations of various ethnic groups living in Batumi.
In order to demonstrate his loyalty to these ideals, seven deputy mayor positions were introduced in the Batumi city hall that were occupied by a Russian, an Armenian, a Kurd, an Abkhaz, a Greek, and two Georgians, respectively. Things went to such comical lengths that the vice-mayor in charge of transport, or more simply put, in charge of gathering contributions from marshrutka drivers, had to change his Georgian surname to that of his Russian grandmother.
And this didn’t bother Koba Grigoriev, speaking with a noticeable accent, in the least: it was worth it, since although the salary of a vice mayor was a whole 150 Lari per month, every one of them drove their own jeeps worth at least $50,000 a piece. On the whole, Aslan Abashidze’s project, if one takes into account the specifics of that time, could be considered entirely successful. But the quasi-state that Abashidze created had one essential flaw: it its core, it was feudal.
Believe me, when speaking about the feudal character of Abashidze’s regime I am not trying to attach a negative connotation to this word. I am speaking only about the establishment of a fact. Having been bitterly disappointed with the relatives from his own side after the all-powerful Asanidze brothers nearly deprived him of his live, Aslan Abashidze began to depend entirely on the relatives of his spouse, who came from a well-known and influential Ajaran family.
The cornerstone of the security system and the punitive apparatus of the regime was the Ajaran ministry of state security, headed by Abashidze’s brother-in-law, Soso Gogitidze. Not possessing a specialized education, this individual had the ministry functioning like clockwork, preventing a coup attempt by the Asanidze brothers and monitoring the entire region though an extensive network of informers.
In that period, if anybody said anything bad about Abashidze, it was only in a whisper, and one could lose one’s job in state service for as much as an innocent anecdote. At the same time, Abashidze tolerated the “harmless” opposition, like the Republicans, and he even appointed his “competitor” Ioseb Khimshiashvili to a post, albeit a minor one. He had a different attitude towards the supporters of the Asanidze brothers, the majority of whom, like the brothers themselves, ended up with indefinite sentences in the inner prison of the ministry for state security. When Ajaran interior minister Alik Bakuridze, who had also participated in the crushing of the rebellion, got into a conflict with Soso Gogitidze and realized that he had lost, he had to flee from Ajara in fear for his life.
The political party “Union for the Revival of Ajara” was created, which later, when the Ajaran Lion began to have all-Georgian ambitions, was renamed the “Union for the Democratic Revival of Georgia." You can sense the difference in the names. In the first parliamentary elections the Union for Revival ran as a regional ally of Shevardnadze’s newly created Citizen’s Union of Georgia, although the paths of the former allies soon parted. Many years later they would reunite again in the face of a common enemy, although this was not enough to save them from the inevitable outcome.
Abashidze’s entry into the Georgian national political arena was linked to the entirely logical hope that the Kremlin would support him in his struggle for power. Perhaps this would have happened, but not for the fact that the influence of the Kremlin itself in Georgian politics steadily decreased. And the Kremlin always had at hand a different favorite for Georgia, Abashidze’s sworn enemy, the former Georgian KGB head Igor Giorgadze.
In speaking about that time, one extremely important factor must be mentioned: very soon the dominant factor of Abashidze’s character became fear for his own life. The Ajaran ruler became practically a prisoner of his entourage, and particularly of the organs of state security, which constantly frightened him with real or imagined assassination attempts.
It is difficult to say what started this fear, the wounds he received from his deputy in April 1991 or particularities of his character or something else. But one way or another Abashidze began living far from reality in his own world. Perhaps this is why most of his grandiose projects, that may really have turned Ajara if not into a heaven on Earth, then at least into a modern developed region, were abandoned half finished. But there was one more reason that seems to me to be fundamental.
During Abashidze’s time a practically perfect fiscal system was created in Ajara. Everybody paid, from the lowest street cop to ministers, but they paid not into the state budget, but into the pocket of the ruling bureaucrat. It was the classic feeding system: the most profitable spots were, of course, in customs, the port, and city hall.
It was because of this that the positions of port director and city mayor were fused in the person of Aslan Smirba, and Jambul Ninidze held three positions: director of the port, head of customs and first vice-mayor of the city. In essence, these positions were the equivalent of a minister of finance, which answered for the majority of the treasury of the Head of Ajara.
It is practically impossible to monitor such a system, and one can imagine what percentage of the gathered tribute did not make it all the way to the Boss.
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