Dispatches from Absurdistan: The battle for Adjara

by on May 3rd, 2004

In the entropic post-Soviet world of screwed-up nations and politico-geographic mitosis, at least one place is perennially screwed up: the Caucasus.

Right at the edge of the Black Sea on the western side of Georgia lies a pathetic little piece of real estate called, variously, Adjara, Ajara, Ajaria, or Adjaria. Call it what you will, the diagnosis is the same: slightly batty ethnic leader with delusions of grandeur sees a power vacuum and goes for the gusto, all but declaring independence and thumbing his nose at the central government.

In this case, the leader is named Aslan Abashidze and he’s dissing the recently-installed government of neo-revolutionaries in Tbilisi, led by Saakashvili, who barely six months ago himself led a coup against Eduard Shevardnadze, who had himself (notice a pattern emerging?) prevailed around a decade earlier over the previous self-parody of a leader, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who had himself taken power from the Commies in 1991. The Georgians clearly have their own ideas about democracy.

John McCaslin of the Washington Times did an excellent piece on Adjara for townhall.com in early April, noting that Abashidze is definitely taking advantage of being in power, decking himself out in designer threads and tooling around downtown Batumi (if there is such a thing) in a brand new Hummer. And he’s also telling everyone in earshot that Saakashvili wants to dump him in the Black Sea in cement Cole Haans. Or words to that effect. Saakashvili insists that he only wants to lock Abashidze up. So what’s a would-be tinpot dictator to do in order to save his people from the yoke of central government oppression? What any self-respecting revolutionary would do: blow all the bridges leading to the capital.

Mind you, Abashidze is the provincial governor.

But of course these things are rarely so simple as one lone freedom fighter (Abashidze) against a U.S. educated lawyer (Saakashvili). Not by a longshot. The Russians are also in on the game, siding in this case with Abashidze, because the Russians are deeply concerned about their own revenues from oil passing through the port. Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov came to Abashidze’s defense in March, with notorious Russian mobster Grigory Lutchansky in tow. So the stakes are clearly high. Where’s the Hummer dealership in Batumi, Aslan?

With such a delicate diplomatic issue coupled with regional tensions, you’d think that Saakashvili, with his nuanced grasp of logic and his Columbia law degree, would want to proceed carefully here, right? Not if you were a Georgian, apparently. Saakashvili ordered the Georgian Navy [insert cruel Post Soviet Ickystan joke here] to proceed with exercises on the Georgian coastline right near — wait for it — Adjara! He insists they have no intention of invading. Really.

How does this little post-Commie drama end? Will Aslan drive into the sunset in his Hummer? Will Saakashvili retire to Tbilisi following successful negotiations and start working on tort reform in the Georgian legal system? Will Yuri Luzhkov next run for mayor of Batumi?

Even if you somehow miss the end of this particular little Black Sea drama, have no fear. Something tells me there will be more.

Marc C. Johnson