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Ajaria’s New Federal Status: Implications For Georgia’s Territorial Integrity

Ceded by Turkey under the 1921 Treaty of Kars, Ajaria under the Soviet regime enjoyed the status of Autonomous Republic inside Georgia. As the USSR withered away, the modern Georgian state was established as a unitary political entity without autonomous sub-units, but Ajaria retained de facto autonomy after 1991. After Eduard Shevardnadze was re-elected President of Georgia last month [April 2000], the parliament in Tbilisi voted to change the constitution, transforming the administrative region of Ajaria into the Ajarian Republic. This federal precedent may help resolve the status of South Ossetia, but it will not satisfy Abkhazian demands. To establish Javakhetia as a federal entity could create more problems than it solves.


Aslan Abashidze, grandson of a prominent intellectual executed under Stalin in 1937, has run Ajaria since 1991 as President of its Supreme Soviet and leader its dominant political force called the Revival Party. During most of 1999, he boycotted parliament in Tbilisi over the autonomy issue. For the October 31 parliamentary elections last year, opponents to Shevardnadze’s rule throughout Georgia largely coalesced around his party (although many of Shevardnadze's opponents are in Tbilisi itself). In an election deemed by international observers to have been “fair” but falling short of the highest democratic standards, Abashidze's party got votes outside Ajaria and obtained representation in Parliament but Shevardnadze's party, the Union of Citizens of Georgia, won a solid majority of the seats.

In mid-February this year, Abashidze split the opposition coalition by filing papers to oppose Eduard Shevardnadze in the presidential election two months later. (The alliance's other candidate was Jumber Patiashvili, head of the Georgian Communist Party after Shevardnadze became Soviet Foreign Minister.) Before the end of the month, Shevardnadze held talks with Abashidze after which he stated that they had agreed a division of power between the regional and central authorities, and also resolved a dispute over the region's contributions to the state budget.

Since Abashidze did not announce his decision to withdraw from the presidential election publicly in Ajaria, ballots cast in his favor there were counted and declared “spoiled,” increasing the nationwide turn-out without threatening Shevardnadze's candidacy. This was an important political maneuver because Georgian elections laws stipulate a threshold turn-out level below which elections are declared invalid, and there was no voting in South Ossetia or Abhkhazia. Within days after the elections gave Shevardnadze another term of office, the Parliament in Tbilisi amended the constitution to create the Ajarian Republic as a political entity that effectively federalized the Georgian state.


Federalism is not a panacea for resolving problems of Georgia's territorial integrity, but it will help. There are three principal regions other than Ajaria, to which it may conceivably be applied: South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Javakhetia.

South Ossetian elites have greeted favorably the prospect of federal status within Georgia. Russia's seeming intention to use North Ossetia as a foothold in the North Caucasus complicates this however. Nevertheless, relations between North and South Ossetia could be worked out in the context of a new Georgian-Russian treaty on state relations. The Russian Duma never approved the document signed between the two countries in the mid-1990s, and Shevardnadze now insists that an entirely new text is necessary. The establishment of South Ossetia as a federal Georgian entity in this context would be a promising development.

In Abkhazia, the indigenous leadership has long rejected the idea of inclusion within the Georgian state. For example, the congratulations addressed to Shevardnadze by Abkhazia's leader Vladislav Ardzinba upon Shevardnadze’s re-election were couched in protocol reserved for communications between heads of state. Neither traditional federal nor even confederate arrangements will solve the Abkhazia problem. There has been talk of establishing a “common state” consisting of two legally co-equal internal jurisdictions but maintaining a single juridical personality and representation under international law. It is not certain that even this arrangement, extremely problematic to implement, would satisfy the Abkhazian side.

The districts comprising Javakhetia are part of a larger administrative region called Samtskhe-Javekhetia. The Virk party in Javakhetia, demanding autonomy, rejected a call by Armenian President Robert Kocharian to support Shevardnadze for re-election. However, the more mainstream Javakh Union supported Shevardnadze. Armenia and Georgia have taken steps to ameliorate the region's difficult economic situation. With Turkey's cooperation, they are implementing a project to bring more electricity to the region. The large majority of Javakhetian schools are taught in Armenian, using textbooks from Yerevan supplied under a bilateral inter-governmental agreement. This cooperative trend will continue to alleviate demands from Javakhetia, which on the whole are economic rather than political. A federal solution is not necessary here.


President Shevardnadze has identified the guarantee of Georgia's territorial integrity as the highest priority of his new administration. To this end, he has asked Parliament to increase his power to grant amnesty and pardons because some leaders from South Ossetia and Abkhazia face criminal charges in connection with their regional rebellions. This may be a useful device for reconciliation. But the federal option will probably not solve all of Georgia's territorial problems.

Even so, the federal option will probably not solve all of Georgia's territorial problems. That is why it is significant that the federalization of Georgian has begun to occur at the same time as international consensus has emerged concerning the need for a comprehensive Caucasus security system with Turkish, Russian, U.S., and European participation in various guises. But even that is not enough.

Not just an international political initiative is required, but rather an internationally sponsored reconstruction effort on the scale of what we see in the Balkans. Only that, combined with political devices, can have a chance at settling the seemingly intractable Abkhazia and Karabakh issues. Indeed, the idea of such an initiative is now beginning to "bubble up" transnationally, from think tanks and policy research centers to national governments and international institutions. There are many points of view to be reconciled, so a good deal of work will be required; however, the process will also create the consensus. The work would be worth it.

First published in Central Asia – Caucasus Analyst 2, no. 10 (10 May 2000): 5–6.

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