Adjara journal

Posted: Apr 01, 2004 12:00 AM

My first experience with post-Soviet Georgia's autonomous republic of Adjara was when Hillary Rodham Clinton's younger brothers, Hugh and Tony Rodham, sought to firmly establish the family in the nut business by importing hazelnuts from its Black Sea capital of Batumi.

The first lady put the kibosh on her brothers' nutty scheme, however, after it became clear that one too many international thugs, not the least of whom was suspected of being a nuclear-arms smuggler, was mixed up in the multimillion-dollar venture.

Now Adjara has surfaced again, its 65-year-old leader, former communist official Aslan Abashidze - "Babu" ("grandfather") to his admirers - telling President Bush in a letter that Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgia's popular 36-year-old revolutionary president welcomed to the White House last month, threatened to launch "airstrikes" against Batumi in advance of parliamentary elections held last Sunday.

"To put this in a parallel American context," Mr. Abashidze wrote to Mr. Bush, "this would be tantamount to a U.S. president threatening to use U.S. military forces to bomb Austin and invade and occupy Texas."

What a twist that would be: the newly elected, pro-Western president, his Georgian government supported by Mr. Bush, flexing his military muscle to overthrow an aging autocratic leader of a breakaway republic who happens to be a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Cause for such a turf war?

Adjara is blessed with Batumi, Georgia's lone deep-water port that began exporting Caspian oil to the world 125 years ago. Today it's not just oil. As we speak, Mr. Abashidze brokers one lucrative shipping deal after another, aiming to triple the size of Batumi's port terminals in just a few years.

Mr. Saakashvili, who assumed his final obstacles on Georgia's road to democracy were holdovers of former President Eduard Shevardnadze's regime, now charges that his Tbilisi government is not receiving its fair share of Adjara's royalties. He likens the heavily guarded Mr. Abashidze, who sports Italian designer clothes and motorcades around in reinforced green Hummers, to a "feudal lord."

One can appreciate Mr. Saakashvili's pressures as he rebuilds his country after decades of Soviet rule. And having Adjara on board would help tremendously, given that bustling Batumi, with a population of nearly 200,000, is in better economic shape than Georgia's landlocked capital of Tbilisi.

"Oil by far is Adjara's biggest moneymaker," Frenchman Eric-Louis Melenec, manager of the European Cooperation Maritime Agency, told me as we flew from London to Batumi last week aboard Mr. Abashidze's Soviet-made YAK-42.

The comfortable plane, with sofas and tables, carried a number of election observers from both Britain and the United States, as well as several dozen reporters from both countries. It was obvious that Mr. Abashidze wanted the international media on hand not just for the balloting - which pitted candidates of his Revival Party against Mr. Saakashvili's National Movement-Democratic Front - but also because he fears for his life.

The Adjaran leader told former U.S. Ambassador Richard W. Carlson, who paid a pre-election visit to Batumi last week as vice chairman of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, that Mr. Saakashvili wants him out of the picture.

"He's convinced he will get assassinated this weekend," Mr. Carlson told me upon his return to London last Friday. (Mr. Saakashvili, who greeted Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in Tbilisi just two weeks ago, insists that he desires no such outcome, although he publicly has stated that a prison cell "with four walls" awaits Mr. Abashidze.)

But Mr. Carlson, who directed the Voice of America during the last six years of the Cold War and later became president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, was so concerned about the assassination rumors - amid reports that Mr. Saakashvili had amassed tanks and troops along Adjara's border - that he placed an urgent 3 a.m. telephone call late last week to Vice President Dick Cheney's office.

So far, none of Georgia's troops has stepped inside Adjara, which fields a smaller but heavily armed army, a police force and a Soviet-style internal security force that, given its intimidation tactics, Mr. Abashidze would do well to dismantle.

As for Sunday's elections, they were mainly peaceful, at least at the 14 Batumi polling stations I visited. However, Zurab Chiaberashvili, head of Georgia's Central Election Commission several hundred miles away in Tbilisi, cited "serious irregularities in Adjara" as ballots were being cast.

Still, Mr. Saakashvili's Democratic Front party easily swept the nationwide elections, meaning ironically that the "one-party" form of government the Georgian president opposes in Adjara is the rule in his capital of Tbilisi. And while Mr. Saakashvili expresses the hope that other party members one day will be elected to the Tbilisi parliament, he still has Mr. Abashidze to contend with. To what end remains to be seen.

"We're really facing great danger," Mr. Abashidze told me Monday. "They will try to achieve their goals at any cost. I'm worried of the escalation of tensions."

In a newly issued statement, the Assembly of European Regions encouraged both leaders to "start immediately an open negotiation in order to defuse the emergent crisis," adding "bloodshed should be avoided by all means."