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Aslan Abashidze (Georgian: ასლან აბაშიძე) (born in Batumi, July 20, 1938) was the leader of the Ajarian Autonomous Republic in western Georgia from 1991 to May 5, 2004. He resigned under the pressure of the central Georgian government and mass opposition rallies during the 2004 Adjara crisis, and has since lived in Moscow, Russia. On January 22, 2007, the Batumi city court found him guilty of misuse of office and embezzlement of GEL 98.2 million state funds, and sentenced him to a 15-year imprisonment in absentia. He also faces a charge of murder of his former deputy, Nodar Imnadze, in 1991.
Early life and career
Abashidze was born into a renowned Muslim Ajarian family, a branch of the Abashidze princely house. His great-uncle Memed Abashidze was a famous writer and member of the Parliament of the Democratic Republic of Georgia between 1918–1921, but was shot on Joseph Stalin's orders in 1937. His father was sent to the Gulag for ten years but survived. Despite a difficult childhood, during the 1950s Abashidze was able to obtain degrees in history and philosophy at Batumi University and in economics at Tbilisi State University. He worked as a teacher and economist for a period before joining Georgia's regional public service. He was the director of several technical service institutes before being named a regional minister in Batumi, the capital of Ajaria, where he served as Minister of Community Service. He was later appointed the national First Deputy Minister of Community Service and moved to Tbilisi. This was, however, a relatively minor government post.
In spite of his descent from a renowned Muslim family that played a pivotal role in strengthening Georgian and Islamic identities among the Muslims of Ajaria, Aslan Abashidze converted to Christianity.
Abashidze and independent Georgia
When Georgia regained its independence in 1991, Abashidze secured his appointment as Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Autonomous Republic of Ajaria. He was also appointed Deputy Chairman of the Parliament of Georgia, a post that he retained in 1990-1992 and 1992-1995. He built an independent power base in Ajaria by steering a course between the Tbilisi government and the opposition. He established his own army as a counterweight to the armed factions that supported and opposed President Zviad Gamsakhurdia. When civil war broke out between pro- and anti-Gamsakhurdia forces in the winter of 1991-92 and again in the autumn of 1993, he kept both sides out of Ajaria, ensuring that the fighting did not spread to the republic.
However, unlike the rulers of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, he did not attempt to seek independence for Ajaria and pursued what can best be described as a policy of "armed autonomy" after the fall of Gamsakhurdia. He effectively turned Ajaria into a "free economic zone" with few restrictions on trade but with the customs duties and revenues going to his government rather than to Tbilisi.
Abashidze attracted some criticism for his heavy-handed rule, which was often described as feudal. He established his own political party in 1992, known variously as the Union of Democratic Revival or the Union for Georgia's Rebirth. In 1998, he was elected President of Ajaria with 93% of the vote in what Russian observers regarded as a generally free and fair election.
He preferred to exercise influence from a distance, rather than attempting to bid for national power, and consistently adopted a policy of backing whoever seemed to offer the best deal for maintaining his rule over Ajaria. He reached an accommodation with President Eduard Shevardnadze, who appeared to have preferred to live with a semi-independent Ajaria rather than risk another civil war. His relations with Shevardnadze grew frosty at the end of the 1990s, as he and the government traded accusations of corruption and treason.
Abashidze and the "Rose Revolution"
The forced resignation of Shevardnadze in November 2003 – widely dubbed the "Rose Revolution" – created a political crisis between Abashidze and the new government in Tbilisi. The Georgian opposition had strongly criticised Shevardnadze for failing to resolve the problem of separatism in the country, including what they saw as the lack of control which Tbilisi had over Ajaria. Not surprisingly, Abashidze saw this as a threat to his position and the continued semi-independence of Ajaria, and denounced the downfall of Shevardnadze as a "coup". He declared a state of emergency in Ajaria and sought Russian support in the event of an open conflict. However, he failed to attract much support from Russia and came under intense pressure from the United States to compromise. On January 25, 2004 Abashidze met the newly-elected President Mikhail Saakashvili in Batumi and declared his intention to work with Saakashvili.
This relationship soon foundered after Saakashvili vowed to restore central authority over Georgia's separatist regions. In mid-March 2004, a motorcade carrying Saakashvili to planned political events in Ajaria ahead of the March 28 Georgian legislative elections, was turned back by Ajarian border guards. Abashidze accused Saakashvili of leading a military convoy into the republic with the aim of overthrowing him, and declared a state of emergency in Ajaria and a mobilization of armed formations. In response, Saakashvili issued a one-day ultimatum to Abashidze to accept central authority and disband the Ajarian paramilitary forces. The government also closed transit routes into and out of Ajaria.
Amid high tension and widespread public demonstrations, foreign governments and international organisations appealed to both sides to exercise restraint and resolve their differences peacefully. Abashidze resigned as leader of Ajaria on May 5, 2004, when Special Forces entered the region and Adjarian paramilitary forces began to swap sides and disarm. The next day, after being granted assurances that he would not be extradited, Abashidze left for Moscow, without a shot being fired in the region.
Abashidze's property in Georgia, as well as that of his close relatives, was frozen by the Georgian courts and eventually transferred to the state's ownership.
On January 22, 2007, the Batumi court found Abashidze guilty of misuse of office and embezzlement of GEL 98.2 million state funds, and sentenced him to a 15-year imprisonment in absentia on January 22. He has also been charged with the murder of his former deputy, Nodar Imnadze, in 1991.
Aslan Abashidze is a widower, having been married to Maguli Gogitidze, a musician, with whom he had two children: a son, George Abashidze, who has served as mayor of Batumi, and a daughter, Diana Abashidze.
- Ex-Adjarian Leader Sentenced to Prison in Absentia. Civil Georgia. January 22, 2007.
- George Sanikidze and Edward W. Walker (2004), Islam and Islamic Practices in Georgia. Berkeley Program in Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies., p. 12, University of California, Berkeley Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies.
- Kramer, Andrew E. (December 28, 2012). "In Russia, Exile in Comfort for Leaders Like Assad". The New York Times. Retrieved 29 December 2012.
- Works by or about Aslan Abashidze in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- Profile: Aslan Abashidze, Steven Eke, BBC News, 4 May 2004
- Aslan Abashidze collected news and commentary at The New York Times
- "President Aslan Abashidze, visionary leader of Adjara", 2002
- Aslan Abashidze at the Georgia Parliament[dead link]
- Aslan Abashidze, The Dictionary of Georgian National Biography.