Aslan Abashidze, a Man of Feudal Loyalty and Pride

In the past nine years of his unilateral reign in Autonomous Republic of Adjara, self-confident, stubborn and independent-minded Aslan Abashidze has managed to annoy just about everyone – from President Eduard Shevardnadze, to the hoist of the young liberals and, indeed, sometimes even his own political allies.

Just as surely, he enjoyed unfaltering favor of the powerful ones – of the late president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, of the short-lived military council that toppled him, and of the President Eduard Shevardnadze, who collected unattended reins shortly afterwards.
Abashidze was born in 1938 into a noble family of hereditary aristocrats, which, as the official website of the Autonomous Republic informs, "has been leading Adjara since 1463." Aslan Abashidze did not inherit the throne though. In the Soviet times his career peaked in late 1980s when he served on the lucrative, but fairly modest post of the Public Utilities Minister of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, after being the deputy of the same ministry in Adjara in 1984-86.

In undeniable political luck, unstable and sometimes quite eccentric President Zviad Gamsakhurdia wrestled the powers away from Adjara’s communist leadership, to hand them to the professional teacher of English and Russian languages, to a good manager with no political experience. Nobody could say at that time, that Aslan Abashidze would prove Gamsakhurdia’s only appointee to outlive his presidency and himself by the fair margin.

A man of a deadly grip on circumstances, Abashidze has derived biggest dividends from the military coup that unseated Gamsakhurdia in 1992. As a good manager and in the best traditions of his feudal ancestry he drew a virtual borderline between the autonomous republic and the rest of the country, and consolidated the position for unilateral governance.

Today, all cars going to the seaside resorts of Adjara from other parts of Georgia are stopped at the roadblock, with passports checked by the local police and formal or informal fees collected. Abashidze, with his Revival Union, ran as a prime challenger to Shevardnadze’s Citizens Union in two national elections. However, maintaining his own brand of perfunctory loyalty Abashidze withdrew from the presidential race in 2001 in favor of Shevardnadze.

By his Byzantine games, Abashidze wields the popular title of "grandpa" reserved earlier for Shevardnadze only. With the similar ruthless and clandestine methods employed against their political enemies, love-hate relationship of the "two grandpas" surely is a jewel in modern Georgia’s partisan politics.

While Shevardnadze’s CUG was portraying Abashidze as arch-evil in 1999 elections, the two leaders always showed mutual respect. Abashidze put Shevardnadze’s unruly pack of youngsters in CUG under the barrage of heavyweight attack, quite conveniently defending the president from the friendly fire. The trick worked efficiently, but only for a while.

In November 2001 Shevardnadze cornered by the protest rallies in Tbilisi fled to Batumi, Adjara’s capital, and awarded one of the prime orders of Georgia to the leader of Autonomy. Cynics say that to receive an order from Shevardnadze is a bad omen. Indeed, Abashidze’s shares in Georgian politics started to drop shortly after CUG’s young leaders became the figureheads of opposition.

Abashidze is resented by the liberal and intellectual elite for what they call "feudal mentality," "dictatorial leadership" and "absolute absence of citizen consciousness." Indeed, Adjarian leader consistently suppressed the freedom of speech. Adjara is perhaps the only part of Georgia where people whisper criticisms of the government in a fear of being overheard by the special services. Several intellectuals, including the current head of Georgia’s National Library were banned from Adjara for criticisms of Abashidze.

Abashidze has also indicated that in his own domain he is above law. Asanidze brothers, one of whom was the Mayor of Batumi, lost the favor of Abashidze and were charged with assassination conspiracy against the leader of Autonomy. One of them, Tengiz Asanidze, is still in jail, despite being pardoned by President Shevardnadze.

Adjara’s official website gives good sense of Abashidze-styled democracy: "many problems require immediate decisions" it says, "Useless negotiations and empty promises are not always necessary."

Abashidze is also disliked by the ordinary Georgians, for the riches of his family that are collected, many argue, due to unilateral control over the economy of the lucrative seaside resorts, a port of Batumi and the border with Turkey.

With the tables reserved at the best restaurants of French Riviera and a Lamborghini Diablo at his discretion "young prince" George Abashidze is by far the best-equipped playboy in Georgia at his 26. When asked, how come his son is driving the most expensive cars, Abashidze-senior replied that George must have been saving the pocket money he was given in childhood. Apparently, for good financial management abilities and due diligence, George was presented last year with a post of Batumi mayor, with a press secretary of his father running as a sole challenger against him.

All reservations aside, Abashidze has some positive points to claim which echo in the minds of the ordinary people. He says he saved Adjara from the bloodshed of civil war that flooded west Georgia from 1992 onwards and from the impact of Abkhazia war. Abashidze’s posture to defend "his" region against Tbilisi by refusing to pay taxes finds understanding in Georgia’s other provinces, which see the capital as a source of their social hardship and collapse of the economy.

Unlike Tbilisi or other provinces controlled by the central government, Gamsakhurdia’s followers or religious minorities were never persecuted in Adjara. In the past nine years several mosques and churches, including the Catholic one, were built.

Aslan Abashidze is not without some personal charm. He has an exquisite taste, with his suits always much better than those of Shevardnadze. Close circle says he also knows some cooking secrets, can do house repairs or even tailor a pair of trousers himself.

But with all pros and cons of his controversial personality, Abashidze is fighting a losing battle against time. With Shevardnadze era nearing its logical end in 2005 Abashidze has few things to chip in against the younger and more dynamic leaders of the opposition.

Abashidze is by far not the most media-savvy person. He is the second person after president Shevardnadze who never went into open public debate. Having received education in Russian, Abashidze makes long pauses in Georgian, although in his well-staged and recorded TV speeches show some wit and sense of biting humor.

Abashidze’s stance on Russia is also an obstacle to his political future in a country that chooses increasingly pro-western path. He maintains a rank of Major-General of the Russian army and is known as an ardent proponent of maintaining the Russian military base in Batumi. He was awarded with Order of Merit and several other decorations of the Russian Federation.

So far, Aslan Abashidze is the only Georgian politician to have a star named after him. A present from his Russian friends, Aslan Abashidze’s star can be seen at 18:30 on 11’84’’. What is difficult to tell now, is how long this star will shine upon Georgia.

by Revaz Bakhtadze


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