The local authorities in the Adjara Autonomous Republic are facing their first major crisis since taking power almost one year ago.
A group of journalists rallied in Adjara’s main town of Batumi on March 3 to protest against, as they put it, “strict censorship” and pressure from on the local television station from the authorities. Meanwhile, on the same day, a local parliamentarian and member of the ruling National Movement party accused the Chairman of the Adjarian government, Levan Varshalomidze, of promoting his relatives to high positions in the government.
The protest rally by journalists in Batumi came shortly after chief of a news program, Nata Imedaishvili, and three other journalists from the state-owned television Ajdara TV quit the company on March 3, citing pressure from the television’s leadership.
“From the very first day of his appointment, Zaza Khalvashi [chief of Adjara TV] has been personally putting pressure and strictly censoring the news program,” Nata Imedaishvili told Rustavi 2 on March 3. Zaza Khalvashi was appointed as the chief of the Adjarian television after the peaceful ouster of Adjara’s ex-leader Aslan Abashidze last May.
However, the leadership of the Adjara TV denied these accusations and claimed that a “personal disagreement” between the chief of the TV station, which has nothing to do with censorship, was the reason behind the journalists’ resignation.
In a response to the protest rally being held by a group of journalists outside the Adjarian government’s office, Chairman of the Autonomous Republic’s government Levan Varshalomidze convened a news conference and denied any link to the events surrounding the Adjara TV and condemned any pressure that may be put on journalists.
“I got information about this [resignation of journalists from Adjara TV] from the television news programs. This is inadmissible and in the coming days we will have an appropriate response to this,” Levan Varshalomidze said.
But, as journalist Mzia Amaglobeli from the local newspaper Batumelebi says, despite Levan Varshalomidze’s attempts to distance himself from the developments in the Adjara TV situation, it is hardly possible that the leadership of the state-run television enforces strict censorship independently, without the involvement of the local authorities.
“Or at least it might be very strong self-censorship - knowing that they [the Adjara TV leadership] might be fired because of critical coverage of the authorities’ activities, they refrain from presenting even moderate criticism. When our newspaper requested that Adjara TV allocate airtime for investigative reporting, we received a very strange answer from Zaza Khalvashi. He told us: 'there can not be a journalistic investigative program on Adjara TV because this is the state television',” Mzia Amaglobeli told Civil Georgia on March 3.
The problem of control of the editorial policies of television stations by the authorities has recently become one of the major concerns of many human rights groups and reporters in the capital Tbilisi as well. the Georgian daily Rezonansi wrote, on February 28, that the Georgian government can guarantee that developments in the country will be presented in a positive light by the various TV stations, as it controls all the leading television stations.
Accusation over the creation of “a clan-based system” in Adjara was yet another blow to the Autonomous Republic’s leader Levan Varshalomidze. These accusations were voiced on March 3 by representative of the ruling National Movement party Eka Kherkheulidze, who is also a member of Adjara’s legislative body – the Supreme Council. She accused Levan Varshalomidze of appointing his relatives to key positions in the government.
Kherkheulidze said at a news conference on March 3 that she has handed over to Levan Varshalomidze a list of his relatives who currently occupy positions in the government of the Autonomous Republic.
Eka Kherkheulidze refused to unveil this list, which includes 18 unspecified persons; however, she did add that she will name these persons if the Chairman of the Autonomous Republic’s Government does not dismiss these relatives “within two-three weeks.” But Varshalomidze denied these accusations on March 3 by saying: “there is no ‘Varshalomidze clan’ in the government.”
This recent incident can be viewed as one more sign of disagreements persisting in the ruling National Movement party’s Adjara branch.
A disagreement became public last week when Davit Batsikadze, one of the leading officials of National Movement party in the Adjara Autonomous Republic, quit his party on February 25 – just one day after a group of National Movement party activists in Adjara announced that they withdraw their party membership. Davit Batsikadze, who was the Deputy Chairman of the National Movement’s parliamentary faction in Adjara’s legislative body, cited disagreements with the Autonomous Republic’s leadership as the reason behind his resignation.
Accusations voiced by Adjarian parliamentarian Eka Kherkheulidze triggered speculations that disagreements still persist in the Adjarian government, particularly between Varshalomidze and his deputy Koba Khabazi, who also serves as the Healthcare Minister in the Autonomous Republic’s government. Eka Kherkheulidze is regarded as a close associate of Koba Khabazi. But both Varshalomidze and Khabazi immediately denied these rumors as “groundless” at a joint news conference convened on March 3.
But the leaders of the Republican Party, which is the only opposition political force represented in the Adjarian legislative body, say that Adjara’s government is amidst “a deep crisis.” In an interview with the Tbilisi-based Imedi television on March 3 Adjarian parliamentarian Murman Dumbadze, a member of the Republican Party, spoke about the reasons behind this crisis.
“The appointment of Levan Varshalomidze, who is a very inexperienced politician, as the Chairman of Adjarian government was a huge mistake by President [Mikheil] Saakashvili. I can even say that this mistake is similar to the one made by [Zviad] Gamsakhurdia [Georgia first post-Soviet President], when he appointed [Adjara’s ex-Leader] Aslan Abashidze to this position [in 1991],” Murman Dumbadze said.
He said that because of Varshalomidze’s inexperience he failed to affectively use of the human resources which exist in Adjara while appointing the staff of the governmental structures. “As a result, we see representatives of his clan, or those people who are holdovers from the previous [Aslan Abashidze’s] regime, holding many key positions in state audit agency, customs department and the [Batumi] Mayor’s Office. He now fully relies on these people” Dumbadze added.
Levan Varshalomidze became chief of the Adjara government last July. The Adjarian parliament, which is totally dominated by President Saakashvili’s National Movement party, approved Varshalomidze’s candidacy after he was nominated by the Georgian President. President Saakashvili visited Adjara last December and announced that he is “satisfied with the work of Levan Varshalomidze.”