Sergei Bagapsh died suddenly at the end of May, halfway through his second and final term as president of Abkhazia. The country was thrown into turmoil, though behind the scenes juggling for position between potential presidential candidates had already begun. The country needs a new president and a new direction, says Inal Khashiq though relations with Moscow remain supremely important.
General confusion followed the unexpected death at the end of May in a Moscow clinic of President Sergei Bagapsh. A month earlier he was working his normal schedule. In the middle of April he paid his first visit to Turkey, where there are up to 500,000 ethnic Abkhazians. He had been invited by Oxford University to give a lecture there in May. But everything turned out differently. Non-emergency medical investigation revealed a problem with his lungs. The doctors initially said that the operation had been successful, but complications suddenly developed, which turned out to be irreversible. The President died and the whole Abkhaz political elite was caught off balance.
Sergei Bagapsh secured a second term as president at the December 2009 election. Under the constitution he could not stand for another term, so an unseen struggle has been going on between those with any intention of occupying the presidential chair in the future. Vice President Alexander Ankvab, Prime Minister Sergei Shamba and the leader of the opposition, Raul Khadzhimba, all with presidential ambitions, were preparing for a lengthy and exhausting marathon by gradually and carefully developing their strategies.
No one ruled out the appearance of new players and, sure enough, they started to emerge. The Interior Minister Leonid Dzyapshba and the leader of the pro-presidential party «United Abkhazia», Daur Tarba. But for his potential heirs Bagapsh's death has turned the intended marathon into a sprint, which has noticeably levelled out the chances of the young pretenders: neither Dzyapshba nor Tarba, nor indeed any of the other new candidates, will have the time to develop a serious plan of campaign.
The reality is thus that one of three politicians – Ankvab, Shamba or Khadzhimba – could become the next president. At the time of writing the chances that the leader of the opposition, Khadzhimba, will become president look fairly remote, but all the experts are agreed that his participation (or not – if he joins up with Ankvab or Shamba) will significantly affect the outcome of the voting on 26 August.
Raul Khadzhimba has his own share of the electorate and effectively has a blocking minority share. About 20-25% of voters will probably vote for him for old times' sake, but he can hardly lay claim to any more, which might mean that he joins up with one of the two favourites – Ankvab or Shamba. Both of them are holding talks with the leader of the opposition on the quiet, but he's in no hurry to make up his mind. His supporters continue to insist that Khadzimba himself will run.
There are no organisations studying public opinion in Abkhazia and local experts have long since made their calculations intuitively, so with a certain margin of error. But neither Vice President Ankvab nor Prime Minister Shamba can be absolutely confident of majority voter support. Close colleagues of the two potential candidates maintain that there is no obvious favourite in the race. Even the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who favours clear-cut assessments, seemed to agree that there is a degree of uncertainty when he came to Sukhum for President Bagapsh's funeral. During his stay he had meetings with both Alexander Ankvab and Sergei Shamba.
The Kremlin evidently came to its own conclusions after the 2004 election. Rather than rising above the spat [whether Bagapsh and Khadzhimba had won, ed] it put all its money on one candidate, the Prime Minister of the time Raul Khadzhimba, and did everything within its power to ensure that its man won. For geopolitical and other reasons any Abkhazian leader will, a priori, will be forced to try and establish normal relations with Moscow one way or another, but Moscow's obstinacy in 2004 brought the country to the verge of civil war. Even when the situation had settled down and Sergei Bagapsh had been declared the winner, the Russian intervention left a nasty taste, as it were, in Abkhazian mouths. The ill-advised nature of the Kremlin's «single-mindedness» subsequently became even clearer. In a very short space of time Sergei Bagapsh managed to win Moscow's confidence, whereas Raul Khadzhimba was regarded by some Russian experts as a most consistent critic of various Russian-Abkhazian agreements where he considered that Abkhaz interests had been overlooked.
The upcoming election in Abkhazia is not just about choosing a new president: the country has to move on to the next stage of its development.
The first president
The first president, Vladislav Ardzinba, was a passionate visionary. Only someone of his kind could have mobilised the country to defend itself and to win the unequal war with Georgia, then willed Abkhazia to survive after the war. At none of these stages did any of the «strong» nations of the world give a brass farthing for Abkhazia's chances of achieving a positive outcome.
The second president
But neither a country nor a society can endure a life on the barricades in a permanent state of tension, and nor should they. When Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia, relations between Moscow and Abkhazia very obviously started to change for the better. It was clear that after such a charismatic visionary as Ardzinba the country needed someone with other qualities, who could calm the situation and put Abkhazia back on the rails. This was Sergei Bagapsh, a politician inclined towards the therapeutic approach, whose firm belief was that conflict should be avoided and compromises sought. Bagapsh did for the country exactly what was needed. He restored a society shaken by the recent upheavals: the economy recovered and life became easier. This was much helped by the new geopolitical situation developing at the time. A breathing space was essential, but «lunch breaks» have to come to an end, because if they extend into a long-drawn out supper, the hangover in the morning will be terrible.
It was obvious that the government model, which was a kind of symbiosis between the Soviet party structure and democracy, no longer met the needs of the country. In addition, Russia's recognition of Abkhazian independence in August 2008, the legalisation of relations between Moscow and Sukhum and Russia's sizeable financial aid to Abkhazia automatically and simultaneously led to the open, and at times uncontrollable, corruption that is strangling Russia itself. As a result the local bureaucracy not only became much richer, but got hooked on the new lifestyle and gradually lost any interest in building a new society. For this reason Russian subsidies make up 70% of the state budget. In recent years this percentage has increased exponentially, which makes Abkhazia very dependent on Russian money.
The crisis started building up during Bagapsh's presidency. Every month since January 2011 there have been episodes, which have thrown the country into turmoil. Virtually every episode was in some way connected with the relationship between Russia and Abkhazia:
- the border demarcation, when Russia took a fancy to the village of Aibga and another 160 sq.km. of Abkhazian territory;
- the church crisis and Russian desire to take over the Novoafonsky [New Athos] monastery;
- the conflict surrounding the ownership of Abkhazia's biggest sanatorium, «MVO Sukhum».
The third president?
In the run-up to the presidential election the public is demanding sweeping reforms and modernisation, which would allow Abkhazia to become more efficient and independent. The country needs «rebooting» and this includes bringing some order into the relations between Russia and Abkhazia. A truly difficult goal and it's important not to spoil relations with Moscow, but at the same time the country's independence must be preserved and strengthened.
Voters will probably consider each of the presidential candidates in the light of whether he is up to the challenges of the day.
Inal Khashig is founder and editor of Chegemskaya Pravda, an independent newspaper in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. He has participated in several Georgian-Abkhaz civil society peacebuilding dialogues.