What happened in Abkhazia, by Liana Kvarchelia
Centre for Humanitarian Programmes, Sukhum
This article is a version of the paper delivered at a roundtable organised by International Alert on 28 July 2014 on (MIS)-CALCULATIONS IN THE CAUCASUS? THE POLITICAL CRISIS IN ABKHAZIA AND NEW GEO-POLITICAL CHALLENGES FOR REGION.
Who controls the economic levers
There is a whole host of factors behind the political flare-up in Abkhazia. On the one hand is the nature of the constitution and level of institutional development and on the other the specifics of the external context.
The presidential model of rule in Abkhazia with authority concentrated in the hands of the president as head of the executive had already been a source of political upheaval towards the end of the first president of Abkhazia Vladislav Ardzinba’s second term. Given the dire economic situation and high crime rate, society became unhappy with the political elite’s monopoly over economic resources around the turn of the century, which eventually resulted in a change in the ruling class through the presidential elections of 2004.
Under the second president of Abkhazia, Sergei Bagapsh, the economy improved to a certain extent, and not only thanks to the considerable social and economic assistance from Russia. Bagapsh announced a ‘clean slate’ policy in relation to his opponents. Under him, the control over the economy became less strict, even though there was no real decentralisation of decision-making.
The third president, Ankvab, established a most severe power vertical, weakening local government to its limit. The main complaint against Ankvab was this concentration of decision-making into his own hands, together with the control of spending of not only the budget, but the whole Russian social and economic assistance programme as well. Considering that a significant part of the Abkhaz economy is driven by Russian finance, primarily in construction and infrastructure, such centralised management inevitably created a narrow clique of businesspeople and officials with access to Russian finance, and cut off the majority of the business community. An attempt to regulate entrepreneurial activity of any significant volume by controlling external investments and freezing loans (after the failed system of credits to private businesses under President Bagapsh) also created an unfavourable atmosphere for medium-sized businesses, which could not but turn them against the president. Yet another reason to criticise Ankvab was that his attention was mainly focused on externally financed infrastructure projects, and not on the development of the Abkhaz economy itself, making the country dependent on external investment in the extreme.
To be fair, it should be noted that, in the absence of effective institutions to ensure state and public oversight, presidential control over the expenditure of Russian assistance proved the only tool to avoid large-scale misappropriation of funds, contrary to what took place in South Ossetia, for example. The assessment of the Russian National Audit Office and other high-ranking Russian officials confirm that, for the most part, they did not have serious concerns with regard to how Russian assistance was used in Abkhazia. However, if one looks from the perspective of effective management and a fair and competitive economic environment, it is clear that such a vertical hierarchy resulted in a lack of transparency in public sector tenders and clientelism.
Time will tell to what extent the former opposition and the businesspeople who jumped on the opposition wagon are truly interested in a real change of the ‘rules of the game’ and not merely in the simple exchange of Ankvab for ‘their own’ man in office. In any case, any concrete proposals that were made, such as the redistribution of powers and authority, originated from civil society and not from the opposition parties. A group of young lawyers, led by the civil activist Alkhas Tkhagushev, proposed a concept for political reform, based on the transition from a presidential to a parliamentary model of rule. It was precisely this model of governance that Raul Khajimba, the united opposition candidate, referred to during his presidential campaign of July–August 2014.
Symbiosis of authoritarianism and democracy
The struggle for economic power was not the only factor behind the May crisis. The nature of the discourse and the rhetoric of the opposition leaders and their supporters, especially in social media, testify to a very strong revanchist sentiment among those who saw themselves as having lost out in the first contested presidential elections in 2004.
In this sense, playing the ‘Georgian card’ by challenging the issuing of Abkhaz passports to the Megrelian/Georgian population of the eastern districts could have been a two-fold strategy. Not only did this deny part of the electorate a vote – an electorate more likely to favour a candidate more liberally disposed to them – but also it seems that the accusation of irregularities in issuing passports was part of a ‘body of evidence’ to accuse Ankvab of ‘betrayal’ of state interests, as very serious accusations were needed for an early regime change. Therefore, it is not surprising that the “Georgian theme” became a locomotive in the opposition’s fight against Ankvab.
Ankvab himself did very little to explain publicly his position regarding a number of acute problems, including the issuing of passports. The issue of citizenship for the Megrelian population of Abkhazia has no simple solution, including those solutions that the former opposition imposed on Abkhaz society earlier. However, clearly, with all the sensitivities related to citizenship, it is necessary from the outset to separate the issue of corruption from other sensitive issues. As it was, there were no real attempts to combat corruption, neither in terms of issuing passports nor in other areas.
The voluntarism displayed by Ankvab in decision-making, in personnel matters, in external relations, along with his insularity vis-à-vis society and limited contact with the media, all caused dissatisfaction. However, Ankvab’s self-confidence was probably based on his disproportionate belief in the inviolability of the principle of the change of power through elections, or at least a belief that this principle is engrained in Abkhaz consciousness. It is obvious that Ankvab staked his hopes on the vast majority of ordinary, passive citizens, whose voice is mostly expressed on election day. It is quite possible that, regardless of a certain degree of dissatisfaction with things, an ordinary citizen (whether ethnic Abkhaz or otherwise) might still have voted for Ankvab, valuing his investment in infrastructure, his respect for cultural diversity of Abkhazia, etc., but most of all, out of fear of destabilisation.
However, Ankvab did not take into account that revolutions are not made by ordinary citizens. A revolution is constructed by others – politicians, businesses and media. The latter enjoyed unprecedented freedom of speech in Abkhazia – there was not a single claim brought against journalists, and not for the want of grounds. On the other hand, it should be noted that access to official information was restricted, probably more so than under other presidents, as the right to official information was also monopolised by Ankvab. “A peculiar symbiosis of authoritarianism and democracy” is a very accurate description of Ankvab’s way of governance, though it could be applied in various degrees to all three presidents in Abkhaz history.
It was the “democratic” element of the president’s rule that allowed the opposition to fight for power - primarily through the Parliament, had they chosen that route - supported by the opposition media. The fact that it was not through the ballot box that the opposition managed to ‘overcome’ Ankvab is an indicator of the immaturity of the democratic political culture in Abkhazia. The former opposition chose to ignore institutional mechanisms for pursuing political power, in fact replacing the normal political process by preparing to force the ousting of the president. Despite sitting in parliament and thus having some influence over political decision-making, nevertheless, the opposition did not make any steps to resolving even smaller scale problems. For example, the provision of residence permits has still not been developed, something that would have significantly reduced the heat around the issuing of passports.
Change of Power
An additional impetus to force an early change of power in Abkhazia was the external context, related to the preparations for Georgia’s signing of an Association Agreement with the EU. The resurrection of an old idea of a potential Association Agreement between Abkhazia and Russia must have been seen as a way to give a ‘symmetric response’ to the Georgian-European Association Agreement. Abkhaz society knows that Ankvab rejected such an agreement, considering that it encroaches upon the sovereignty of Abkhazia. Moreover, the speaker of parliament and foreign ministry issued strong statements in response to the interview with Taras Shamba, a well-known public figure, who argued the advantages of associated relations with Russia. It cannot be said either that the idea of such association was received unequivocally in Russia itself. The Russian foreign ministry, for that matter, was rather reserved towards the issue of association and towards the unconstitutional methods of presidential change.
Still, why did the forceful change of power occur so quickly? It seems that Ankvab and his supporters, his detractors and the majority of the Abkhaz population were caught unawares. Society, just like the president, had become used to the idea that power changes hands through a procedure outlined in the constitution. Ankvab himself refused to give orders to defend the administration and TV buildings, which could have led to clashes. He did not call a rally of the thousands of citizens who did not agree with his forceful ousting. On the other hand, among his somewhat demoralised supporters, there was a certain lack of organisation. In some sense, Ankvab was hoisted by his own petard; he fell victim to his own hands-on management style, i.e. there was no one who could take decisions in his absence. Ankvab’s supporters, who had neglected their party work, could not counter a more organised opposition with a serious response. Nevertheless, the veterans’ groups were sufficiently strong to prevent persecution of certain officials and ousted president’s supporters after the announcement of Ankvab’s resignation. It should be said that peace and order were kept up until the last moment not so much by the state apparatus or security forces, who towards the end of the election process were perceived as being less than impartial, but by the existence of veterans’ organisations on both sides of the political crisis.
New President. What next?
Overall, many people were opposed to the way that Ankvab was ousted – even those who were not his supporters. Many saw a threat of precedents in this disregard for the institutions, weakening the state and dividing society. In short, Abkhazia approached the snap presidential elections in a not very reassuring state of affairs:
- Society is divided. A relentless ‘war of words’ in social media leaves no doubt about this.
- State institutions are weak and susceptible to the onslaught of ‘street democracy’. The former oppositional mainstream sees a positive side of the precedents created by the May events, considering them to be an important lesson to all subsequent presidents. It is not so obvious for the mainstream that a permanent threat of destabilization is offered instead of a complex multi-layered political process and institutionalized power struggle.
- Power is still personalised, even if the discourse on ‘reforms’ is prevalent.
- The parliamentary majority becomes the source for breaching the law. The speaker’s (acting president’s) statement in support of Khajimba’s candidacy at the height of the election campaign is a case in point, as it contradicts the election laws.
- The media discourse equates the ‘breach’ of the constitution with a ‘change’ of the constitution in order to justify its unlawful decisions and to accuse the opponents of resisting the reforms.
- There are no strong parties with a clearly defined platform. The ‘enemy image’ is the main weapon in the arsenal of politicians and various ‘experts’.
- A highly fraught election campaign demonstrated that all political groups excel in using a ‘democratic thesaurus’ and are very skilled at cognitive swaps – substituting the notions. A good example is the absurd exaggeration of the principle of transparency, when they demanded that the Abkhaz language exam that each presidential candidate had to sit should be broadcast live on TV.
- People who previously were considered independent media are becoming the channel for, or more often the creators of, myths. A new ‘reality’ is being constructed through the efforts of the most vocal journalists, a reality in which the citizens of Abkhazia should rejoice that the ‘long-awaited’ freedom has arrived. At the same time, the very same journalists’ level of intolerance towards dissent and their blatant one-sided reporting testify to the opposite.
Nevertheless, the elections have taken place and the outcome not contested. Society heaved a sigh of relief. It is difficult to say things might have developed if there were a second round. In any case, the vice-presidential candidate, Vitali Gabnia’s response to a journalist on whether he would admit defeat if he lost the election was far from unequivocal, giving rise to doubt.
In the meantime the new president of Abkhazia Raul Khajimba faces some difficult tasks. Firstly, his support came from political groupings that are far too diverse, and which will expect from him new appointments, so a tough struggle for governmental appointments appears inevitable. Secondly, the desire to mobilise strong external support created a situation when the issue of Abkhaz sovereignty, the inviolability of which never came under doubt until recently, ended up to be almost at the fore of the political agenda.. Thirdly, the new president will have to deal with the issue of ethnic Megrelians’ citizenship, something that was previously sidelined. Fourthly, society is really expecting the changes that Khajimba promised during his election campaign.
The newly elected president is promising to investigate the economic activity of the previous leadership to identify any possible embezzlement and this is important for society. It is also important that investigations are not limited to Ankvab’s term alone but cover the whole period of Abkhaz statehood. Besides, if at the same time there will be no ‘purges’ among his own staff, and if non-professionals or those not known for their inveterate fight against corruption are appointed to key positions, it would hardly be possible to talk about positive change. Khajimba has a chance to prove that his 10 year struggle for power crowned by presidency is not an end in itself. He can prove this with concrete actions that implement his pre-election promises, i.e. to stimulate economic development; to reduce crime; to fight corruption and nepotism; to carry out administrative reform, etc. This is exactly what can really unite a divided society today. It would be difficult in the extreme to solve these tasks without wide public support and participation.
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 However, the withdrawal of licences for micro and small businesses, against the backdrop of dissatisfaction of larger and more ambitious businesspeople, went unnoticed by Ankvab’s critics.
 There is also another concept, put forward by ‘Ainar’, non-governmental fund, several points of which were criticised by both the pro-authorities and the opposition circles.
 N.A. Baranov (2007). ‘The political regime of contemporary Russia // The News of the Russian State Pedagogical University named after A.I. Hertzen’, Social sciences and humanities: Scientific journal, No. 8 (35), St. Petersburg. pp.54–64.
 In addition to the disrespectful and hostile rhetoric of the opponents, an attribute of a divide is the presence of strictly closed groups in Facebook (for dissidents). It is akin to the real division lines in Belfast, even though here the barriers are virtual.