From Poti we traveled 70 miles south to Batumi (pop. 130,000), capital of a Georgian territory known as the Autonomous Republic of Ajaria. Its autonomy has tenuous legitimacy. During World War I, the territory was seized by Turkey. In 1921, Turkish leader Kemal Atatürk ceded it to Russia on the condition that Vladimir Lenin accord it autonomy, because of its partly Islamic population.
Soon after the USSR fell apart, Aslan Abashidze was appointed chairman of Ajaria’s governing council; he has ruled the territory as his fiefdom and enforced a Stalinist cult of personality. A Russian military base outside Batumi and strong ties to Moscow give him the means to defy Tbilisi and withhold the tax revenues owed the federal government. Following last year’s Rose Revolution, Russia abolished visa requirements for Ajarians—but not other Georgians—granting de facto recognition to Ajaria’s independence. (The United States, by contrast, does not recognize Ajaria as a separate state.) Meanwhile, Abashidze also declared a state of emergency and closed the territory’s borders with the rest of Georgia. Only by paying a driver the small fortune (for Georgia) of $70 and doling out bribes at roadside checkpoints did I manage to reach Batumi—a city of ramshackle one- and two-story white stucco houses, many with ornate Ottomanstyl bay windows. Mosques had green minarets that stabbed the brilliant azure sky.
The area has been contested before, and then, too, the cause was oil. In 1918, at the start of the three years of independence that Georgia would enjoy after World War I cleaved it from Russia, and before the USSR absorbed it, 15,000 British troops landed in Batumi to protect an oil pipeline (linking the Mediterranean with the Caspian) from Soviet and German advances. But good relations with Russia interested the British more than did tiny Georgia or even the pipeline, and in 1920 they withdrew their troops. The next year the Bolsheviks invaded and transformed Georgia, along with Armenia and Azerbaijan, into the Trans Caucasian Federative Soviet Socialist Republic. Georgia gained its status as a separate Soviet republic in 1936.
My hotel had intermittent electricity, but, like most of Batumi, lacked heat. My breath puffed white in my room. Frost covered the walls. The town’s two museums, though officially “open,” were nonetheless closed to visitors—no electricity. Ancient Russian-made Lada automobiles beeped and rattled on sun-washed cobblestone lanes overhung by stout palms that stood lush green against the snowy slopes of the Lesser Caucasus. Trucks adorned with Turkish lettering reminded one that Abashidze controls Georgia’s lucrative consumer goods trade with Turkey, the source of much of the republic’s income. The cold and the lack of heating and electricity told me I could only be in the former Soviet Union, as did the local Russian-language newspaper, Adzharia, a pathetic party-line, no-news screed. It lauded Iran and warned of bandit attacks from Tbilisi. There is no free press in Ajaria, which seemed never to have known perestroika or glasnost.
I soon had confirmation of this from my guide, a woman I’ll call Katya. (To protect her anonymity, I have also changed certain identifying characteristics.) Katya has long shimmering auburn hair and was well turned out in a black leather jacket and boots and designer jeans—uncommonly fine tailoring in hardscrabble Georgia. She had formerly worked in the upper echelons of Abashidze’s government and had enjoyed a decent salary and other privileges. As we walked cluttered, trashy lanes toward the outlying seaside district, she switched with ease from Russian to English to French. Blacksuited men with automatic rifles—Abashidze’s guards—stood on virtually every corner and glowered at us. At a square near the water, we passed an artificial New Year’s tree—a conical metallic grid 100 feet tall, up which men were climbing to affix real leaves. Farther on, an angular concrete monstrosity rose some 30 feet into the air from a manicured esplanade parallel to the sea. “Our pyramid,” Katya said. “The Louvre has one, so we do too.” Her voice sounded flat, as if she were reading from a script. “Our president builds many things for the people.”
Facing the sea is Shota Rustaveli Batumi State University, a dreamy white-marble complex of three-story buildings with blue gabled roofs, apparently designed to resemble the WinterPalace in St. Petersburg. It was closed for the day, but Katya flashed her government pass at a guard, led me in and showed me a student theater with décor worthy of the Bolshoi Ballet: gilt lace curtains and a huge glittering chandelier and red plush seats. “Our president built this theater for us,” she said flatly. “He is very strong.”
“It’s better than any theater I’ve ever seen in the States,” I replied. “Do students really need such opulence?” She did not answer, but interrupted several more skeptical questions, saying, “Our president is very strong. He does many things for us.” Back on the street, away from other people, I asked if anyone in town could tell me about politics in the republic. “Our president is very strong,” she said. “He has put up barricades to stop bandits from entering our republic. Our president does many things for us. Just look at the university! And the pyramid! And the esplanade!”
We walked by the freshly washed silver Mercedes belonging to Abashidze’s son, the mayor of Batumi. Night was falling, and more black-suited men with Kalashnikovs were coming on patrol duty. Ahead, the town proper was dark, without power as usual, but the president’s office and the state residences blazed with light; the trees around his mansion were bedecked in Christmas lights, which glittered on the polished hood of the sole vehicle, squat and polished and black, parked beneath them. “Our president’s Hummer,” said Katya. On the corner, a revolving billboard showed photographs of Abashidze visiting workers, inspecting factories, ministering to the simple man. Beyond it, a huge array of lights covered the wall of a multistoried building, flashing in red, white and green the nonsensical message MILLENIUM 2004 above the dark town.
Finally, I persuaded Katya to tell me how she really felt about politics in her republic. “We have a dictatorship here,” she said, glancing around to make sure none of the Kalashnikov-toters was within earshot. “We’re against our president, but he is strong. Everything here is for our president. Nothing here is for us. Our government is one big mafiya,” she said, using the Russian word for mob, “the biggest in the former Soviet Union.”
The next morning, a taxi took Katya and me to the southern edge of town, to Gonio Apsar, the ruins of a Roman fortress dating from the first century A.D. A plaque at the gates recounted Apsar’s lengthy history of conquest: the fortress was Roman until the fourth century; Byzantine from the sixth; Georgian from the 14th; Ottoman till 1878, when the Turks returned it to Russia; and Turkish again after World War I began. It’s a story close to the consciousness of every Georgian: armies have ravaged this land time and time again. I said it seemed naive to believe the future would be different. Katya agreed. “Our president wants Ajaria to join Russia,” she said. “Oh, there will be war here, just like there was in Abkhazia! We won’t be able to stop it. We’re all afraid of war! Oh, I just want to get out of here!”