The Ajars of Ajaria in southwestern Georgia are a Georgian sub-group. While other Georgian sub-groups are traditionally Christian Orthodox, the Ajars are mostly Muslim, having adopted Islam when the area was under Ottoman Turkish rule. During the Soviet period, Ajaria was an autonomous republic within Georgia.

Operated as an independent fiefdom

Gamsakhurdia came to an understanding with the chairman of the Ajarian Supreme Council, Aslan Abashidze, as did Shevardnadze.  Abashidze ran Ajaria as an independent fiefdom, and even had his own army. However, unlike the leaders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Abashidze never expressed any wish to secede from Georgia. On the contrary, he constantly emphasized that Ajars are Georgians, and demonstrated his loyalty to Georgia by becoming a major player in Georgian politics at the national level, with a party of his ownc alled the All-Georgia Revival Union.

Abashidze resigns

When Shevardnadze fell from power in November 2003, Abashidze sealed Ajaria’s borders and declared a state of emergency. Although he reluctantly agreed to Ajarian participation in the 2004 presidential election, demonstrations by pro-Saakashvili activists from the Kmara youth movement led to arrests and a new state of emergency on January 7. Protests against Abashidze continued.

In mid-March, Saakashvili imposed an economic blockade on Ajaria and placed the Georgian armed forces on high alert after he was barred from entering Ajaria. From mid-April, tension rose as the two sides vied for control of the upcoming elections to the Ajarian parliament.

The crisis reached a head at the beginning of May with big new anti-Abashidze rallies, the defection of Abashidze loyalists, and Georgian army maneuvers near Ajaria. A violent outcome was averted by Russian envoy Igor Ivanov, who persuaded Abashidze to resign on May 5 and fly to exile in Moscow. Ajaria was placed under direct presidential rule pending new elections to the Ajarian parliament and the population was disarmed. Elections took place on June 22 and were won by pro-Tbilisi parties.