Ajaria has been part of Georgia since ancient times. The Seljuk Turks invaded in the 11th century AD and the Mongols in the 13th century. Georgia lost this territory to the Ottomans in the 17th century, during which time many of its people converted to Islam. In 1878, it was annexed by Russia. After World War I, its strategic position on the eastern Black Sea coast led to it being contested by a number of major powers, with the territory temporarily being occupied by Turkey, Germany, and Britain. It was later recognized attached to the Georgian Republic (1918-21) before being subsumed into the Soviet Union. Under Soviet rule, the region surrounding the port of Batumi was reorganized as the Ajar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, a constituent republic of the Georgian SSR. The reasons for this were not ethnic, since the Ajars and Georgians are of same ethnic origins. Rather, Moscow wanted to avoid giving Georgia complete control of the important Black Sea port and to bolster communist leanings among the ethnic Georgian Muslims known as Lazi, living in Turkey.
Georgia's declaration of independence on April 9, 1991 under the nationalist rule of Zviad Gamsakhurdia led to ethnic tensions and major inter-ethnic violence in several parts of Georgia, most notably in Abkhazia in the far west of the country. Ajaria was also badly affected by the turmoil. Its ambitious leader, Aslan Abashidze, established an autocratic local regime largely independent of Georgian central authority. He was aided in this by the quiet support of Russia, which stationed troops in Ajaria and other separatist areas. Under Abashidze's rule, Ajaria established its own armed forces and did not pay taxes to the Georgian state.
Although the political dispute between Ajaria and Georgia has not spilled over into the kind of violence seen in Abkhazia, it has nonetheless resulted in some tensions. Georgia's president Eduard Shevardnadze visited the region several times during his rule between 1992-2003 to effect a reconciliation with Abashidze. The latter's party, the Union of Democratic Revival of Georgia, ran together with Shevardnadze's ruling Union of Citizens of Georgia party in the 1995 parliamentary elections, although it later became a moderate opposition grouping.
The Abashidze-led Revival party has thirty members in the Georgian parliament, and is seen as a moderate opposition. It opposed the November 2003 ouster of President Shevardnadze and has expressed concern for the future status of Ajaria. However, Abashidze publicly rejected calls for Ajaria to break away from Georgia and the Georgian government likewise promised to "respect all the demands and interests of the autonomous republic [of Ajaria]." It remains to be seen how Ajaria will fare in the post-Shevardnadze era.