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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 May, 2004, 15:17 GMT 16:17 UK
Profile: Aslan Abashidze
By Steven Eke
BBC regional analyst

Aslan Abashidze
Abashidze is openly pro-Russian

The Georgian president has called him a "narco-baron".

Many western governments view him as a dangerous strongman, prepared to run the risk of war to retain control of his tiny province.

But to most of his people, Muslim Georgians in the Black Sea region of Ajaria, Aslan Abashidze is a popular and respected leader.

Early years

Mr Abashidze was born into a distinguished family. His grandfather was a well-known writer and Georgian parliamentarian in pre-Soviet times.

Educated as a linguist, historian and economist, Mr Abashidze entered public service during the 1970s.

He leapt to fame in 1991, when he became the chairman of Ajaria's parliament, simultaneously occupying the post of deputy chairman of Georgia's national parliament for much of the 1990s.

He was elected president of Ajaria, with an overwhelming majority, in 1998.

Mr Abashidze has never sought independence for Ajaria.

map of Georgia, showing Ajaria

Under his rule, it has become a relatively prosperous enclave in an otherwise rather chaotic country.

Mr Abashidze's supporters say that is due to his excellent abilities as an economist and planner.

His opponents say Ajaria's comparative wealth is down to smuggling - as Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has also asserted.

Relations with Georgia

Mr Abashidze reached a compromise with former Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze, which allowed him to stay in power.

As a consequence, Mr Shevardnadze's demise was bad news for Mr Abashidze.

Mr Saakashvili came to power pledging to restore his country's territorial integrity.

That clearly includes dealing with its wayward regions.

Mr Abashidze has always had an openly pro-Russian stance.

That is a quality that led him to be received at the highest level in the Kremlin.

Yet when Mr Abashidze recently appealed to Russia for support, fearing President Saakashvili was preparing to use force, Moscow appeared very reluctant to intervene.

'Personal fiefdom'

Mr Abashidze now faces strong pressure from Europe and the US to seek a compromise with the central authorities.

He has a large number of armed militia whom he may call upon in the event of war.

Despite repeated demands from Tbilisi, he has refused to disband them.

Human rights groups and pro-democracy activists say that, whatever the perceived economic benefits, Mr Abashidze has turned Ajaria into a personal fiefdom.

They also accuse him of authoritarian tendencies and a desire to ruthlessly stamp out political opposition.

That is an argument which will be bolstered by the latest scenes of Mr Abashidze's security forces beating peaceful student demonstrators in Ajaria's capital city, Batumi.

The BBC's Chloe Arnold
"The situation in the renegade Ajaria region continues to deteriorate"

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