By late Wednesday night the news was spreading fast: another aging autocrat was on his way out in a former Soviet satellite. Late last year it was Eduard Shevardnadze, President of Georgia. This time, it was Aslan Abashidze, for the past 13 years the authoritarian boss of Ajaria; an autonomous republic in Georgia's southwest corner. "It's over," said Givi Targamadze, chairman of Georgia's Parliamentary Committee for Defense and Security. "The only thing that remains to be seen is who will come from Moscow to take Mr. Abashidze to Russia." That same night, the secretary of the Russian Security Council, Igor Ivanov, arrived to tell Abashidze it was time to go, and they soon left for Moscow. As Abashidze flew into exile, fireworks flared over the regional capital, Batumi, and celebrations erupted on the streets.
Chalk up another bloodless victory for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's "rose revolution." Last November, crowds of determined but peaceful demonstrators, protesting against poverty and corruption, convinced Shevardnadze that he had lost control of Georgia, and the former Soviet Foreign Minister stepped down to allow Saakashvili to take over without violence. Saakashvili, 36, a U.S.-trained lawyer, vowed to reclaim all of the fractured country's provinces and spread democracy over a unified Georgia. Since then, relations between Tbilisi and Batumi have been tense. Ajaria has been running its own affairs since the Soviet era, but Abashidze refused to recognize Saakashvili's authority or relinquish his control of the region's oil or his private army. [an error occurred while processing this directive] In January he reintroduced a state of emergency and closed the internal border with the rest of Georgia. But Saakashvili, displaying the same artful combination of diplomacy and populism he used in November, forced Abashidze out without firing a shot. Can he repeat the trick in Georgia's other rebellious regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
Abashidze's undoing began May 2 when the Georgian army carried out maneuvers near the Ajaria border. "He was spooked," says one Russian source close to Abashidze, who spoke to him in the days before his ouster. "He thought they were going to invade. It was May Day holidays in Russia and he thought there would be an invasion and the outside world would not even notice." Abashidze blew up the three Choloki River bridges that link Ajaria with Georgia. When the bridges came down, the prices of goods in Batumi skyrocketed and Ajarians saw their livelihoods threatened. Government officials began resigning en masse, the police and army went over to Saakashvili's side, and Abashidze lost what little popular support he had. The Kremlin made no move to prop him up because Saakashvili had won the respect of Russian President Vladimir Putin by successfully balancing Russian and U.S. interests in the region. Arriving in Batumi to a hero's welcome early Thursday morning, Saakashvili thanked the Ajarians for their "unprecedented heroism and dignity." In Tbilisi, Nino Burjanadze, Speaker of the Georgian Parliament, told Time that Georgia had "shown the whole world how important democratic principles are to us."
Abashidze was "a classic Soviet-era apparatchik," says Robert Parsons, head of the Georgian service at Radio Liberty in Prague. He effectively stripped opposition parties and media of any influence; Abashidze himself would appear live on television for two to three hours every day to bring people up to date on his achievements. He believed that he and his family were destined to rule Ajaria thanks to what he called their "superior genome." He also indulged in monumental construction projects, including a marble-floored maternity ward without heating and a university campus with computers, a luxury in other Georgian schools and colleges. Both buildings remained empty and unused until foreign dignitaries arrived, when pregnant women and students would be rushed in.
With Abashidze gone, Saakashvili will now turn to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both lost after regional wars in the early 1990s. "A democratic and unified Georgia is unthinkable without them," Burjanadze says. But these next steps in Georgia's reunification will be more complicated. Encouraged in their separatism by Moscow a decade ago, many people there now have Russian citizenship. Saakashvili's rose revolution still has a few thorns.