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Lessons for Moscow, by Sergei Markedonov

Ekho Kavkaza - The final session of the Abkhaz parliament of the fourth convocation took place on 30 March. A new supreme representative organ has been elected in the unrecognized republic. What influence will this development have both on the domestic political situation in Abkhazia, and on Abkhazia’s relations with Moscow, its political patron?

The election process in Abkhazia has never been a pure formality. And although the importance for the unrecognized republic of the parliamentary campaign does not compare with the presidential election, the present change in the composition of the legislative organ merits special examination for several reasons.

First, this was the first parliamentary election after Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia’s independence and which reflected the new realities of the „post-August period.“  Second, it was the first election campaign since the appearance in Abkhazia of a new president.  It was thus a sort of test for Aleksandr Ankvab. Third, the outcome of the vote yielded a number of surprises. The personal composition of the body of deputies has undergone renewal, beginning with the speaker of the People’s  Assembly, Nugzar Ashuba. Many names that were well-known throughout the republic  did not make it beyond the first round, or lost in the second. Only three of the 35 outgoing deputies managed to retain that status. Fourth, the campaign showed that people are ready to back specific candidates, rather than political parties.  The modest number of people who voted either for the „party of power“ or for the opposition is proof of this. It is personal qualities that are more in demand in Abkhazia today, and not party labels. What does this tell us? That there exists a real need to draft a new political agenda on which the issue of political renewal figures prominently.

How is this likely to impact on Russia, and Russia’s Abkhaz policy? An initial perusal does not reveal any particular interest in the campaign on Moscow’s part. The Kremlin is seldom prepared to go into details and nuances,  it is accustomed to a personalized approach to politics and to building relationships with individual leaders. That being the case, Moscow is not ready to show excessive activity, except during a presidential election. And during the parliamentary election campaign in Abkhazia we did not register frenetic intervention in the election process on the part of the [Kremlin] officials responsible. For the sake of objectivity, credit is due to the Abkhaz administration. It seems to have registered the demand for change and decided not to try to save the sinking ship of the [pro-regime] United Abkhazia party. It did not try either to associate itself with the „party of power.“

This, incidentally, raised Ankvab’s rating by several points. Since the parliamentary election his legitimacy has only increased, he has demonstrated his readiness to play the role of president of all the unrecognized citiizens and not just of the bureaucrats and administrators. In that capacity, his position in terms of relations with Moscow is becoming more powerful. In negotiations on complex and sensitive issues he will have the option of not always being conciliatory. Taking into account, of course, the asymmetrical nature of bilateral relations.

Indeed, Moscow could well draw some lessons from the parliamentary elections with regard to „greater Russia.“  It is obvious that a neat liberalization without impetus from below would help the country cope better with existing problems and help alleviate protest sentiments. Abkhazia has for years shown it can successfully implement a complex model of governing an extremely diffiicult society. It would not hurt the Kremlin to learn from that experience. What’s more, that model, if allowed to develop without repeating the mistakes of 2004, would be beneficial for Russia. It is always possible to say that the issue is not [Moscow’s] occupation [of Abkhazia], but Abkhaz society’s need for self-rule [samostoyatel’nost‘] and political maturity, and Moscow’s readiness to help meet that need.

Thus the parliamentary election testifies not only to Abkhazia’s successful graduation from a further domestic political test. It also provides rich food for thought for the Russian political elite. Together with the grounds for reflection from South Ossetia, it contributes to an understanding that the unrecognized republics are entering a new stage of their history, in which working with the old instruments will no longer be effective.

This article was published by Ekho Kavkaza and is translated from Russian.

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