Abkhazia’s Divisive De Facto President Steps Down, by Liz Fuller

Raul Khajimba

Raul Khajimba

Liz Fuller | Special to AbkhazWorld

Just months into his second presidential term, Raul Khajimba resigned late on 12 January after a four-day stand-off with the opposition, which has been demanding his resignation for years, citing his failures to deliver on repeated promises to kick start the region’s moribund economy, implement political reforms,  embark on a dialogue with his critics, and crack down on crime and corruption. That pressure had intensified over the past four months, initially due to questions over the legitimacy of last September’s presidential run-off vote which the Central Election Commission (TsIK) ruled that Khajimba had won by a margin of less than 1,000 votes, and more recently as a result of high-profile killings in which a former Khajimba bodyguard was believed to be implicated.

A former career KGB officer, Khajimba, 61, fought in the 1992-1993 war that culminated in the loss of Georgian jurisdiction over the former Abkhaz Soviet Socialist Republic and the region’s de facto independence. He subsequently occupied various government posts, including defence minister and first deputy prime minister, then prime minister (2002-2003).

Perennial Spoiler 

Since 2004, with covert Russian backing, Khajimba systematically played spoiler, spearheading protests against two consecutive presidents and triggering successive political crises. His refusal in October 2004 to accept that his rival, Chernomorenergo head Sergei Bagapsh, had been elected president with 50.08 percent of the vote led to clashes in Sukhum, the Abkhaz capital, and the annulment of the vote. Under pressure from Moscow, Bagapsh and Khajimba then ran together in a repeat ballot which they won, but Khajimba quit as vice president in May 2009 when opposition parties accused Bagapsh of unwarranted concessions to Russia in the wake of Moscow’s formal recognition of Abkhazia in August 2008 as an independent state.

Khajimba was defeated again in the December 2009 ballot in which Bagapsh was re-elected for a second term. After Bagapsh’s untimely death in May 2011, Aleksandr Ankvab was elected his successor with 54.86 percent of the vote. Then-Prime Minister Sergei Shamba placed second with 21.04 percent and Khajimba third with 19.83 percent.

Two years later, 10 opposition parties joined Khajimba’s Forum of National Unity in a Coordinating Council that in April 2014 issued an ultimatum to Ankvab to dismiss the cabinet and the prosecutor-general, form a "government of national unity" headed by a candidate of their choice, and implement sweeping constitutional changes transferring to the prime minister many of the powers currently invested in the president. http://www.rferl.org/content/abkhazia-opposition-launches-new-challenge-president/25369601.html

When Ankvab played for time, Khajimba initiated the storm of the presidential administration building in Sukhum. Ankvab fled for his life, and was constrained within days to resign in what his supporters dubbed a constitutional coup. His departure paved the way for pre-term presidential elections in August 2014 in which Khajimba scraped to victory in the first round with just 559 votes more than his closest challenger, former State Security Service head Aslan Bzhania.

Relentless Opposition Criticism 

Within months, the Amtsakhara (Keep the Home Fires Burning) union of veterans of the 1992-1993 began relentlessly criticising Khajimba, accusing him of failing to deliver on his pre-election promises (which comprised 75 bullet points). In addition to not implementing the redistribution of powers between the president and government that Khajimba had demanded of Ankvab, those imputed shortcomings encompassed failure to draft a program to kick-start the region’s stagnating economy, turning a blind eye to corruption and economic mismanagement, conducting a systematic witch-hunt against his critics, and denying the opposition access to the state-controlled media.

In mid-2015, Amtsakhara aligned with Bzhania’s APRA Fund for Socio-Economic and Political Research and two smaller groups in the Bloc of Opposition Forces (BOS). Starting in October 2015, Amtsakhara repeatedly called on Khajimba to resign, without success.  The opposition succeeded in 2016 in forcing a referendum of no confidence in the president, but because of the timing – at the height of the summer – it proved invalid because of low turn-out. http://www.rferl.org/content/caucasus-report-abkhazia-referendum-fails/27856785.html

Faced in December 2016 with a renewed demand by the BOS for his resignation, Khajimba sought to buy off the opposition with an “Agreement on Social and Political Stability” under which he undertook to expedite political reform and appoint opposition representatives to several government posts, in return for which the BOS  dropped its demands for his resignation. But Khajimba, true to form, failed to fullfil his commitments under the Agreement, from which the BOS formally withdrew in June 2017.

Opposition frustration did not, however, lead to a renewed, invigorated push for Khajimba's resignation. Rather, the opposition appears to have heeded the advice of former President Ankvab to take a longer-term approach and set about drafting a strategy for the 2019 presidential election, given that the population at large was tired of the serial confrontations between the Bloc of Opposition Forces and the president. Meanwhile, the economic situation continued to deteriorate while unemployment, violent crime and drug addiction reached record levels. 

The 2019 Presidential Ballot 

As noted above, it was the 2019 presidential election that set in motion the chain of events that ultimately served as the catalyst for Khajimba’s forced resignation. Bzhania in his capacity as opposition leader registered for the ballot, but had to pull out after succumbing to heavy metal poisoning that almost proved fatal. The opposition then nominated as its fall-back candidate Amtsakhara Chairman Alkhas Kvitsinia.  Consequently, the first round of voting, on 25 August, proved inconclusive, with none of the nine candidates polling the 50 percent plus one vote required for victory. A second round of voting was therefore scheduled for 8 September between Khajimba and Kvitsinia, who had polled 24.83 and 22.91 percent of the vote respectively.

In the fortnight preceding the run-off the two rivals struck a behind the scenes deal intended to resolve the problem posed by the ambiguous wording of the Law on the Presidential Election on how the winner should be determined: by a simple majority, or by more than the combined votes cast for his rival and “against all candidates.”  The two men (or their respective campaign managers) signed a formal agreement to abide by the first option. The TsIK accepted that agreement as binding, and duly announced on 9 September that Khajimba had been elected president with 47.39  percent of the vote, compared with 46.17 percent for opposition candidate Kvitsinia. The difference between the two amounted to just 999 votes, with 3154 votes (3.76 percent) cast “against all” candidates.

Former President Ankvab and several opposition parties immediately challenged that pronouncement, arguing that since neither candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote, the TsIK should declare the ballot void and schedule a new election. 

+ Outcome of Abkhaz Presidential Run-Off Overshadowed by Dispute over How Election Law Should Be Interpreted, by Liz Fuller

+ Tensions Rise in Abkhazia on Eve of Unpredictable Presidential Run-Off, by Liz Fuller

Kvitsinia for his part wrote a letter to the TsIK stating that he realized that he broke the law in signing the agreement with Khajimba’s staff that votes cast “against all” should be disregarded, and was therefore rescinding his signature to that agreement.  He then lodged a formal appeal to the Republic of Abkhazia Supreme Court to annul the TsIK’s ruling that Khajimba had been elected president. The Supreme Court rejected that suit, and scheduled its hearing of Kvitsinia’s appeal against that rejection for 18 December. Meanwhile, Khajimba’s inauguration took place as scheduled on 9 October.

On 18 December, the Supreme Court’s cassation body postponed until 9 January its hearing of Kvitsinia’s appeal against its original rejection of his demand that the election results be annulled. By that time, widespread popular mistrust of the Abkhaz leadership had been compounded by a drive-by shooting in central Sukhum in November in which two men were killed outright and three people wounded, one of whom subsequently died of her injuries. 

When police failed to arrest any suspects after 10 days, Akhra Avidzba, the brother of one of the victims, organized a series of street protests that culminated in Khajimba’s dismissal of the interior minister and one of his deputies.  Two men subsequently arrested in connection with the shootings were identified as former members of the security forces; one had served as a presidential bodyguard. 

Support for Khajimba Dwindles

A further indication that support for Khajimba had plummeted came on 23 December, when a hostile crowd intervened to thwart the formal inauguration in Khajimba’s presence of his nominee for Gagra district head.

Then on 6 January, the former ruling Yedinaya Abkhaziya party released a statement branding Khajimba “the illegitimate president” of “a mafia state,” and implied that he had sought to poison Bzhania in order to ensure his own re-election. https://apsadgil.info/opinions/comments/partiya-edinaya-abkhaziya-piramidu-mafii-vozglavlyaet-nezakonno-izbrannyy-prezident-i-ego-okhrana/

Yedinaya Abkhaziya appealed to the population to gather on 9 January outside the Supreme Court building in Sukhum.  The party did not, however, endorse or participate in the landmark events that followed. Even before the Court postponed indefinitely a decision on Kvitsinia’s appeal, some 1,000 mostly young protesters headed by Avidzba forced their way into the presidential administration building, smashing windows and breaking down doors, and demanded Khajimba’s resignation and new elections.  Khajimba fled to his out of town dacha but then declared that he was not ready to step down, and would try to defuse the situation. He rejected as exacerbating the situation an appeal later on 9 January by 19 (of a total 34) law-makers to step down voluntarily.

According to a statement on 10 January signed by 12 senior political figures, including Bzhania, Kvitsinia, and Yedinaya Abkhaziya chairman Shamba, Khajimba threatened to use force against the protesters. https://apsadgil.info/news/politics/edinstvennyy-vykhod-dlya-rauli-khadzhimba-vo-blago-strany-ego-nemedlennyy-ukhod-v-otstavku-zayavleni/ But de facto Defence Minister Mirab Kishmaria swiftly made clear that the armed forces would not intervene in the standoff. https://apsadgil.info/news/politics/mirab-kishmariya-armiya-ne-budet-primenyat-silu-v-otnoshenii-svoikh-grazhdan/

The Prosecutor General’s office, however, continued to back the president, opening a criminal case on 10 January against the persons who stormed and damaged the presidential administration building.

Also on 10 January, the Supreme Court convened again to consider Kvitsinia’s appeal and this time  ruled that the results of the 8 September run-off vote  illegal, and repeat elections should be held. Khajimba’s press service questioned the legality of that ruling, which it said could further heighten tensions. http://apsny.ru/news/?ID=44162

The TsIK for its part clarified that Khajimba nonetheless remains acting president until those repeat elections take place. Two days later, on 12 January, the TsIK scheduled the repeat presidential ballot for 22 March. Khajimba rejected that decision as  “based on the illegal decision” of the Supreme Court to annul last September’s run-off,  and vowed to appeal it. https://apsadgil.info/news/politics/raul-khadzhimba-ne-soglasen-s-resheniem-tsik-/

Moscow Intervenes (Again)

As in 2004 and 2014, the  Kremlin stepped in to determine the outcome of a chain of events that threatened to spiral out of control. On 10 January, the Russian Foreign Ministry created a smokescreen for that intervention by releasing a statement designating the events of the previous day as an internal Abkhaz matter and expressing the hope that the situation “will be swiftly stabilised within the framework of the law by means of direct dialogue between the sides involved.”  Given that for years Khajimba had studiously avoided direct talks with the opposition, the likelihood of any such dialogue was minimal, especially since the young protesters still occupying the presidential administration building in Sukhum had warned they would not vacate it until Khajimba complied with their demand that he resign.

In fact, within hours of that Foreign Ministry statement the Kremlin dispatched to Sukhum Russian Security Council Deputy Secretary Rashid Nurgaliev, who together with Vladislav Surkov (Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pointman for Abkhazia) had played a key role in 2014 in forcing Ankvab’s resignation and thus facilitating Khajimba’s advent to power. Nurgaliev met with Khajimba and Abkhaz Security Council Secretary Mukhamed Kilba the same evening, and Sputnik Abkhazii quoted Kilba as saying on 11 January that Nurgaliev might participate later that day in talks between Khajimba and the opposition, but no such talks are reported to have taken place, possibly because at that juncture Khajimba still believed he could remain in office. Only 150 people showed up on 11 January at a public meeting in Sukhum Khajimba apparently hoped would demonstrate that he still enjoyed broad popular support. https://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/344556/

Nurgaliev did, however, discuss the situation with Bzhania, who described the meeting as “constructive.”  Nurgaliev then met again later on 11 January with Khajimba, whom he briefed on the opposition’s stance. Finally, on 12 January, a half-hour meeting took place at Khajimba’s dacha between him, Bzhania,  and Nurgaliev, at which Bzhania informed Khajimba that the demand for his resignation remained in force and gave him two hours to consider his response. https://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/344582/  Nurgaliev’s presence at those talks indicates that by then Moscow had concluded there was nothing to be gained by seeking to keep Khajimba in power.

With the deadline for a response approaching, the protesters who had occupied the presidential building lost patience and began converging on Khajimba’s dacha. By then, according to Moscow think-tank head Aleksei Chesnakov, Surkov too had arrived in Sukhum and held talks with Bzhania, Kvitsinia, Avidzba, and independent law-maker and former Interior Minister Raul Lolua. The news portal Caucasian Knot quoted Chesnakov as saying Surkov had spoken by telephone with Khajimba, but did not even bother to meet with him face to face as “from the moment he fled the [presidential] administration building he completely lost control of events … There was no point in meeting with him, and it was shortly after that telephone conversation that Khajimba resigned.”  https://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/344608/ 

The End of an Era

Khajimba finally bit the bullet late on 12 January and penned a letter to the parliament saying he was stepping down in order to preserve political stability. https://apsadgil.info/news/politics/raul-khadzhimba-podal-v-otstavku-/  At a parliament session the following day,  32 of the 34 law-makers present voted to accept Khajimba’s resignation.  In accordance with Article 66 of the republic of Abkhazia Constitution, they then unanimously approved Prime  Minister Valerii Bganba as acting president. https://apsadgil.info/news/politics/valeriy-bganba-naznachen-i-o-prezidenta-abkhazii-/

The legality of Bganba’s appointment as acting president is questionable, however, insofar as in light of the Supreme Court’s annulment of the results of the September presidential run-off, it could be argued that Khajimba was not legally re-elected president, and therefore the cabinet appointments he made are likewise not legal.  Following that line of argument and the wording of the constitution,  Valerii Kvarchia in his capacity as parliament speaker should have become acting president.

In addition, Avidzba and his followers argued consistently that in the event of Khajimba’s resignation Bzhania should serve as acting president pending new elections.  Whether, having tasted victory in their bid to force Khajimba’s resignation,  Avidzba and his supporters will seek to play a more prominent role in Abkhaz politics should become clear in the course of the presidential election campaign, which begins next week (22 January).

Liz Fuller
is an independent analyst who studied Russian and Georgian at the University of London. She joined Radio Liberty Research in Munich in 1980 and was editor of “RFE/RL Newsline” from 1998 until its abolition in May 2008.




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