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Exiled Adzharia Boss Says History Will Absolve Him

Georgia's revolution swept regional leader Aslan Abashidze out of power and into a luxury apartment in Moscow.

June 26, 2004|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — His grandfather has a street named after him in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. A monument there recalls that Mamed Abashidze headed the Adzhari nationalist movement and the small Black Sea republic's first parliament in 1918 -- before being shipped off to exile and death in one of Josef Stalin's prison camps.

Aslan Abashidze has no monuments in Tbilisi. Indeed, he would be arrested if he set foot there. But he knows what it is to leave Adzharia -- a region of Georgia fired by separatist passions -- with a lump in his throat. The once-powerful Adzhari leader was whisked off in the predawn darkness two months ago in a Russian government jet. He says his departure was the price of silencing the stirrings of a new civil war.

On Friday, his daughter arrived in Moscow as well -- chased out of her apartment in Adzharia by a crowd hurling stones and demanding payment of at least $21 million that the Georgian government says the Abashidze family owes the state treasury.

"This is neo-Bolshevism at its ugliest," Abashidze said during an interview from the luxury apartment in Moscow that has been his home since May 5. "The way we are being treated, it is disgraceful.... But history will make its judgment. In 1937, my grandfather was executed. In 1958, they started to put up monuments to him."

This slight, graying man was until recently one of the most powerful rulers in the Caucasus, for the last 12 years virtually the sole authority in the 1,200-square-mile republic that controlled Georgia's main oil-shipping port and some of its most prosperous small industries.

But in another example of the ways autocratic regimes are being edged out by turbulent new democracies, a ruling family once considered almost synonymous with Adzharia has been forced into exile. Abashidze was the victim of the same revolution that swept Georgian President Eduard A. Shevardnadze from power late last year.

The new president, Mikheil Saakashvili, has made it clear that he is prepared not only to impose authority over breakaway regions like Adzharia but pursue economic compensation from former officials, when -- like Abashidze's daughter, Diana -- they come within the new government's reach.

"I can say that I have been a political hostage of my father. All the supporters of my father are under pressure from the new government now," Diana, 34, said in a telephone interview before being ushered out the back door of the apartment in Batumi, the Adzhari capital.

A close friend who identified herself as Inga said a crowd broke into the building and began to bang their fists on the apartment door, demanding that the family pay back public funds, then leave. "We were seriously concerned that the crowd could kill us," she said.

In Moscow, waiting for news before his daughter's arrival, Abashidze blamed the new Georgian government, which he said forced him out to get its hands on Adzharia's wealth.

"The Georgian leadership did everything possible to portray us as anti-American, but the truth is we had contractors to help build helicopters, planes and Hummers. We had signed a contract for a $350-million [liquefied natural gas] plant," he said.

Saakashvili "simply wanted the territory of the Adzhari autonomous republic without the leadership of the Adzhari autonomous republic," he charged.

Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Baramidze said authorities had questioned Diana Abashidze in connection with several businesses registered not to Aslan Abashidze, but to his children.

"For illustration, I can say that in connection with just one of these episodes that involves Abashidze's firms, we are looking at about half a million dollars in tax arrears," Baramidze said. The government is only beginning to understand the number of businesses in which Abashidze had an interest, and the total amount owed, he said, "is somewhere in the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars."

The government's guarantee of immunity to Abashidze and his family, he added, does not apply if any of them -- as Diana did -- returns to Georgia. "As for putting Aslan Abashidze on trial himself, I can tell you for sure that if he ever sets his foot on Georgian turf, he will be arrested immediately."

Abashidze said he had nothing more than the $4 million he left in his Georgian bank account -- seized, along with his property, by the government.

He said violence would have erupted had he stayed. Having blown up all the bridges to prevent an incursion by Saakashvili's army, the population, Abashidze said, was so keyed up that a single spark could have ignited a war.

He made his decision to leave, he said, after three hours of talks with former Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov.

"If even one Adzharian person would have been shot, I wouldn't have been able to stop it. They would have killed everybody. I realized that if I stayed in Adzharia, there would be a bloodbath. If I stayed in Adzharia, the idea of having a united Georgia would be buried right there and then. So I left."

The plane, with Ivanov and Abashidze aboard, took off at 3 a.m. "It was him, his son and myself," Ivanov recalled in a recent interview. "I must say that given all the complexity of the situation, Abashidze was keeping his composure as a very brave man. He never lost self-control."

Now, dressed in casual slacks and a T-shirt and sipping a glass of the peppery sapuravi wine made on his Adzhari estate, Abashidze appeared not to be worried. He has "good friends," he said, among them Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov.

"I arrived here with a T-shirt and a jacket and a pair of pants," he said. "But I'm not really afraid because I know I will be able to set up a lucrative and prosperous business, whatever I set my mind to do."

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