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19 April 2004

One man and his dogs

Michael McMahon sees at first hand the big problem for Georgia's president: his enemy's fierce canin

By Michael McMahon

Every day, 200,000 barrels of oil pass through Batumi, the revenue-spinning Black Sea port of Adjara in Georgia. But though the Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, would like its riches to be shared with the nation as a whole, his writ does not run here. Adjara, with its Russian military base, is an autonomous republic within a republic, which has been ruled as a personal fiefdom for the past 13 years by Aslan Abashidze. For Saakashvili, this man personifies the corruption and nepotism of which he has promised to rid Georgia.

And if Saakashvili wants to know his enemy and to find his biggest problem, he should look 300 yards down a bumpy track near Batumi Airport. Here, behind the 20-foot fence and a gate guarded by men with Kalashnikovs, is a long, low structure. It is open to the elements and houses a hundred cells with iron bars along one side. The building contains Abashidze’s dogs.

Saakashvili could do worse than ponder on his bete noire‘s beast of choice: the Caucasian ovcharka. To see the dog is to know the master.

Ovcharka” is a Russian word whose meaning is something between shepherd’s dog and sheepdog, but I wouldn’t put money on one winning a field trial in Westmorland. Set one loose in such a context and it will come back to you with a mangled rival between its jaws. Or maybe the remains of a spectator.

The ovcharka was bred not to round up sheep, but to rip out the throats of wolves that threatened them. Its ears and tail are docked so that there is less to get hold of in a scrap. When the Berlin Wall was standing, it was the eastern sector’s guard dog of choice. A man who chooses to re-establish the bloodline of animals such as these is not the sort to keep a bunny rabbit in his back garden.

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The Caucasian sheepdog will defend to the death what it perceives to be its territory: invade an ovcharka‘s space and you’ll see teeth. Abashidze showed his a couple of weeks before the recent elections, when Saakashvili tried to cross the administrative frontier into Adjara with an armed escort. Abashidze’s men turned him back.

Saakashvili responded by imposing an air, sea and land blockade on Adjara. Tanks were rolled up to the borders, arms were handed out to civilians, and he threatened to shoot down the plane that was bringing Abashidze back from one of his frequent trips to Moscow. There was talk of civil war. The blockade was lifted after Abashidze agreed to allow Saakashvili to enter Adjara to canvass for votes, and to permit central government to put observers in the excise duty offices of Batumi’s harbour.

The Georgian parliamentary elections took place on 28 March without serious incident, but the result raised the political temperature. Parties winning less than 7 per cent of the national vote don’t get seats in parliament. Abashidze’s party got just over 6 per cent. Saakashvili’s got 67 per cent – and practically all the seats that were contested. Georgia is once again a one-party state, which makes the existence of a no-go area within its boundaries an even greater affront to the pride of the newly mandated president.

Saakashvili doesn’t need to visit Abashidze’s kennels to be persuaded that the man is a fighter and a survivor. Everybody in Georgia knows that. But it might prompt him to think of better ways of dealing with him. I was in Georgia just over a month ago, and while the rest of the press pack were being shown the economic advances that had been achieved in Adjara under the rule (if not quite reign) of Abashidze, I broke away and scouted around up-country. So while my colleagues saw the seagoing train ferry, the newly kitted-out harbour, the factories, the opera house, the university and the schools, I saw the mountains, the archaeological sites – and the dogs.

During my visit to Abashidze’s kennel near Batumi, my translator looked at me as if I was mad when I went up to each of the hundred cells and did what any doggy person would do on meeting a new dog: I spoke in a friendly tone and offered the back of my hand. They all licked it and wagged what was left of their tails. I got on with those dogs not because I was brave, but because I was ignorant.

If I had known then what I know now, I would have been frightened; they would have sensed it and had my arm off. They were friendly because I approached them calmly and with confidence.

This is not how Saakashvili approaches Abashidze. Western newspapers devote little space to events in Georgia, and their shorthand characterisation of its president is as a young, American-educated democrat fighting against corruption. They don’t quote from the speeches he makes to his domestic audience, which are full of rhetorical rant.

He told a rally earlier this year that there was “a room ready for Abashidze if he should visit Tbilisi – it has got bars on the windows”. He told a military parade recently that “our honour and dignity are flouted by all kinds of separatists, enemies and dwarves”. (Abashidze is of significantly less-than-average height.) “We will no longer put up with the lawlessness of bandits and gangsters on the territory of the Adjaran autonomy,” he said after the election results were announced.

These are not the words of a man seeking a constitutional compromise with Abashidze’s autonomous republic. But Saakashvili clearly hasn’t got the sort of temperament you need even to get close to an ovcharka, let alone to master one. Which is unfortunate, because if you make a Caucasian sheepdog your own, it will defend you and yours with its life. Make an enemy of one and you are in for a fight.

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