Developments in Georgia over the next week will have huge implications for the whole Caucasus region and U.S.-Russian relations. Parliamentary elections will take place on March 28. The crisis that unfolded last week in the autonomous republic of Ajara was directly related to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's desire to hold free and fair elections and Ajaran leader Aslan Abashidze's intention to manipulate the results.
To appreciate what is at stake, we need to understand the lead up to the "Rose Revolution." I was an election observer at the November 2003 parliamentary elections and witnessed how Abashidze's actions led to the end of the previous government. The worst election fraud was in Ajara, where Abashidze attempted to manufacture the result to become the largest political party in the parliament in order to be elected president in 2005.
Abashizde blackmailed former president Eduard Shevardnadze with separatism unless his inflated votes were accepted. The parallel vote counts, however, showed Saakashvili's party won. When Shevardnadze caved into Abashidze's demands, the only option left for the defenders of democracy was to oust the government in a peaceful revolution.
Saakashvili has a long record as a crusader against crime and corruption-he even met his wife studying at the International Institute on Human Rights in Strasbourg. In one of the more memorable parliament meetings, he showed pictures of several government members' mansions, which were obviously not purchased with their meager salaries. After the revolution, Saakashvili promised to build a country that was strong politically and economically and that was united territorially.
He looks at the upcoming parliamentary election as a critical test for solidifying the gains of the Rose Revolution and therefore decided to deal with Abashidze to avoid a repeat of the November fraud-particularly since many Georgian and international observers have been complaining of the increased threats and harassment they have experienced in Ajara. Even his Minister of Finance who was visiting Ajara to prepare the campaign for the upcoming elections was detained.
When Saakashvili was on his way to Ajara on March 14 to campaign and press for free and fair elections, Abashidze was, as is often the case, in Moscow, seeking political support. Both Abashidze and his Russian allies had been pursuing an international public relations campaign for several weeks, warning of the "pending civil war" that Saakashvili supposedly planned to unleash.
This campaign even extended to the United States: friends of Abashidze convinced The Hill to publish an article on January 23, which stated that the Ajarans had "uncovered a secret plot by Saakashvili to seize the republic and its port Batumi in the aftermath of the (24 January) inauguration." No such attempt was made. Again warning of the pending civil war, Abashidze's armed men stopped the President's envoy from entering Ajara.
Saakashvili diffused the crisis by demanding that Abashidze pledge to hold free and fair elections and to restore the rule of law in Ajara by clearing the way for the central government in Tbilisi to carry out its rightful responsibility to administer customs duties and control of the Batumi port, which are crucial to stemming the massive smuggling on which Abashidze relies and which, for years, denied the central budget critical revenues. Abashidze accepted these conditions and also committed to disarming and dissolving his militia. Now the real challenge is to make sure Abashidze will stick to his word-and there are already worrisome signs indicating he will not.
Abashidze clearly fears the results of a free and fair election; it is entirely possible that he will attempt to "play tricks" on Saakashvili's administration, and indeed, on the people of Ajara. Therefore it is extremely important that OSCE and other election observers pay special attention to Ajara. The election fraud often begins before the date of the election; observers need to start making sure that voters are not intimidated (especially with threats of losing jobs) and that voter lists are accurate (no dead people on the list). On the day of the election, each polling station has to have at least two observers, who need to have the right to watch the vote count as well as the transfer of the ballot boxes to Tbilisi-it is not uncommon to see thousands of envelopes be added on route.
In addition to Abashidze, organized criminals and all those who have benefited from gray- and black-market activities in the port of Batumi will also have a lot to lose if Saakashvili's anti-corruption drive enters Ajara. Accordingly, it is likely that these groups will also try to cause problems ahead of March 28. It is especially interesting to note that Moscow's mayor Yuri Luzhkov showed up in Ajara during the crisis for no other reason than to "show support to his brother." Luzhkov brought with him several businessmen, including notorious alleged organized criminal Grigori Loutchansky, Abashidze's former business associate. It is not clear what ongoing business ties either man has to Abashidze, but this show of solidarity certainly raised eyebrows in Tbilisi.
The Kremlin has played a quiet and constructive role in this latest crisis so far, but given regular inconsistencies between Russian statements and actions on Georgia, they continually need to be watched. Just recently, while officially confirming commitment to "Georgia's territorial integrity," Moscow was hosting the separatist leaders of Georgia. This time, Saakashvili and Putin had a phone conversation, after which Saakashvili trusted that Putin would not back Abashidze. Indeed, Russian refusal to assist him in the event of armed conflict (and to assist him would have been easy, considering that there is a Russian military base in Batumi), may have forced Abashidze to give in to Saakashvili's demands. But the game is not over until after the elections, and Russian hardliners must be kept in check.
Overall, developments in Georgia over the last week have proved to be a great victory for democracy and regional cooperation. Perhaps Saakashvili acted impulsively, but he also acted decisively. He operates in a country where the political rules are brutally tough and he is willing to be as hard nosed as his opponents. After all, the forces of darkness cannot be defeated through peaceful negotiations alone, and the U.S. knows that well. At the same time, it is important that America continue to work closely with the Georgian leadership, so that the enemies of freedom, democracy and good governance will never again succeed in provoking a military confrontation in Georgia.
Zeyno Baran is Director of International Security and Energy Programs at The Nixon Center.