"The contradictions of the political game." Who will become the new president of Abkhazia, by Sergey Markedonov

Repeat presidential elections in Abkhazia

In early January, Abkhazia was awash with mass-protests, the apotheosis of which was the seizure of the building of the presidential administration of Abkhazia. After negotiations with the opposition, with the participation of Russian mediators, the head of the republic, Raul Khadzhimba, and his vice-president, Aslan Bartsits, resigned. Repeat-elections lie ahead for Abkhazia on 22 March. The reasons for such explosive changes were analysed by Sergey Markedonov, a leading researcher at the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Security at the Institute for International Studies at MGIMO. According to this expert, in order to avoid history repeating itself, those wishing to compete for the presidency should take them into account.

January in Abkhazia turned out to be hot but not because of global climate-changes. The start of the new calendar-year in the republic was marked by a fleeting domestic political crisis: mass-protests; storming of the presidential administration building; demands for the resignation of President Raul Khadzhimba, who took office just three months before the events described; and ultimately the announcement of early elections and the resignation of the head of the republic from his post. This entire, brim-full agenda was accomplished in about a week.

What are the causes of the January-turbulence in Abkhazia? Can Khadzhimba’s resignation be considered a symbol of the end of the internal crisis, or are we just talking about the beginning of its new stage? What lessons should be learned by those who will replace the now ex-president, who has set a kind of record (more precisely, anti-record) for the shortest time in office?

From geopolitics to the domestic political agenda

After Russia recognised Abkhazia’s independence on 26 August 2008, the republic significantly lost its capital for media-attention. According to the accurate observation of the Russian caucasologist Alexander Skakov, “Occasionally peace and quiet propagate just another criminal scandal, and on the Internet anyone so desirous can find both sharply negative and enthusiastic reviews about holidaying in this country.” In the Western media and scholarly literature, Abkhazian and South Ossetian matters are interpreted for the most part in the context of Russian “revisionism” in relation to the new independent states of Eurasia. But against the backdrop of the Crimea and Donbass, they have significantly lost their edge and relevance.

It is worth noting at the same time that the “Georgian question” in the time elapsed since the “five-day war” has actually disappeared from the Abkhazian agenda. In this regard, it is significant that during the January crisis of 2020, neither the authorities nor the opposition used the once-popular arguments about the “hand of Tbilisi” against each other. The president’s administration even voiced such an exotic variation as a “Ukrainian footprint” in the Sukhum mass-protests, but there was no talk of Georgian influence.

For better or worse, the Georgian topic today is considered in Abkhazia in a historical rather than an actual political context.

Abkhazian politicians are talking about possible negotiations with Tbilisi. Aslan Bzhania, who is considered today as one of the favourites for the re-run presidential elections in March 2020, recently announced the need for dialogue with Tbilisi. But such appeals are about restoring trust, pragmatic interaction, and not about the return of Abkhazia to Georgia.

However, having ceased to be one of the post-Soviet “hot spots”, Abkhazia has retained an interesting and rich internal agenda, which was and remains in the shadow of the plots of the Transcaucasian “Great Game”. Meanwhile, in less than six years the republic has already witnessed the second resignation of a president under the influence of mass-protests and the running of a second early election. If we compare the stories of the resignation of the two heads of the republic, Alexander Ankvab and Raul Khadzhimba, we can see rather a lot of similarities: first the one, then the other did not resist opposition-activities for long, and both presidents failed to mobilise their supporters.

A long way to power with a sad ending

Being consistent opponents, both these politicians travelled rather far in their journey toward the cherished presidential goal. Ankvab, having come into personal conflict with the first Abkhazian president Vladislav Ardzinba, for many years associated with forces outside the republic, striving to support the opposition from the Russian capital. Then, having played a significant role in the rise to power of Sergey Bagapsh, he was for many years in his shadow when serving as Prime Minister and then Vice-President.

Khadzhimba first declared himself Ardzinba’s ill-starred successor, but, having lost the presidential election in 2004, he first became the “Vice-President by agreement” (such a decision was part of a package-solution to overcome the crisis that had then broken out); thereafter, for many years he was considered one of the opposition-leaders. He became president only in 2014 — at the fourth attempt!

However, the quantity measured in years spent in the struggle to reach the Abkhazia’s Mt. Olympus, in the cases of Ankvab and Khadzhimba, did not carry over into the quality of their managerial activity.

Both ex-presidents, while in power, failed to manifest sufficient flexibility in their relations with the opposition, although, in fairness, they cannot be called dictators either. However, this scarcely counts as any great service on their part: in tiny Abkhazia, power and people are too close to each other, and the traditions of direct democracy have deep roots, not even allowing top officials to shut themselves off from voters in their high offices. Suffice it to say that even in Soviet times, at Abkhazian traditional gatherings, members of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union — editor] and Komsomol handed out their tickets at the entrance in order to be guided not by Party and Komsomol conscience, but by national interests. And such gatherings (as, for example, in the village of Duripsh) came together even in Stalin's days, when, in the words of a classic, in the open spaces of the once united country, speeches were “inaudible beyond ten paces”.

Be that as it may, unlike Bagapsh, the second Abkhazian president, who during the crisis of 2004-2005 offered his opponent Khadzhimba the vice-presidency, his successors did not take similar steps. On the contrary, step by step, they set against themselves not only opponents but also supporters, and at the fateful hour (for Ankvab this occurred in late May - early June 2014, and for Khadzhimba in January 2020) they were beaten — without support in the form of backers, without any opportunity for elaboration prior to the early elections, and with no participation in them.

Power and Opposition: Abkhazian Mirror

The resignations of Ankvab and Khadzimba are mirror-images. In the first case, the oppositional Forum of National Unity served at that time as lead-skirmisher, and in the second, it was the Amtsakhara (Family Lights) party, despite the fact that Amtsakhara had once supported Ankvab. Opposition and power swapped places, but how similar was and still remains their rhetoric!

In 2014, Khadzhimba-supporters were accused of usurping power through a coup d'etat. In fact, throughout the entire presidential term his opponents had held protests, demanded his resignation, and even tried to initiate a referendum. In 2020, everything changed places, and now supporters of the head of the republic, who has resigned, are talking about a seizure of power by the opposition and their disregard of law and order. You don’t have to be Cassandra to predict that if, any of Khadzhimba’s opponents wins (it is highly likely that this will be Aslan Bzhania, who headed the republic’s State Security Service during the presidency of Ankvab), he will be the target of protests from those who today consider themselves to have lost.

Moreover, as Alexander Skakov notes, “As a rule, both the authorities and the opposition have virtually no programmes for the economic development for Abkhazia; there are no reform-projects; and there are no significant differences in the vision of the future of the country. The opposition is formed on the basis of criticism of the government, and the government isn’t slow in providing the basis for such rhetoric.” And, therefore, we can recall how, on the issue of granting citizenship of Abkhazia to the residents of the Gal District (these are overwhelmingly ethnic Georgians [recte Kartvelians — editor], who are identified as Mingrelians in the republic), the current and former authorities and opposition have simply switched places, voicing one and the same claims. While in opposition, they scolded Ankvab’s presidential team from a "patriotic standpoint" for unjustified liberalism in the process of issuing passports to the residents of Gal, but when they got into power, the same people advocated softer methods and called on society to understand and hear their arguments.
Exiting the vicious circle

Is there any way to break this vicious circle? Obviously, by definition there can be no simple recipes, but there are things that lie on the surface. It is obvious that in March 2020, when early presidential elections will be held in Abkhazia, and in any other foreseeable period, there will be no winner with a result of 90% of the vote. Let me remind you that Khadzhimba, who came to power in the wake of mass-protests against Ankvab in August 2014, received only slightly more than 50%. If we assume that Bzhania, the main beneficiary of the events of 2020’s “hot January”, will win, then it is doubtful that victory will be achieved with Central Asian levels of support. Consequently, the question of the stability of power will come to the fore.

According to Nadezhda Venediktova, a well-known Sukhum-based journalist and public activist, “Last September several sensible people proposed that Khadzhimba sign an agreement with the opposition that could lead the country out of the crisis, guided not by a trivial division of seats, but by a desire for reform.” However, this initiative received no support. There can today be no guarantee against repetition of a similar scenario (not only by those who now oppose of Khadzhimba). And if so, then mass-actions, coupled with assaults on administrative buildings, could become a real but far from wonderful future for Abkhazia.

Thus, the elections themselves, in isolation from the task of achieving a social and élite consensus on the basic issues of the development of the republic, will not provide a way out of the crisis.

They will merely lower the temperature, like an aspirin, but they cannot serve as a reliable means for treating the disease, the symptoms of which are the onset of criminality, corruption, and economic problems.

Of course, the role of Russia, which acts as a guarantor of Abkhazian self-determination, as well as the security and socio-economic restoration of the republic, is extremely important. Moscow, being involved in the internal processes of Abkhazia, has been able to learn one important lesson from the mistakes made during its journey along this path. After the bet placed on the successor of the charismatic Ardzinba did not work out in 2004, an understanding dawned: whoever heads the republic and in whatever hostile relations he would be enmeshed with opponents, this leader will be orientated towards Russia.

As long as there is no real alternative to Moscow from the West that would be based on the recognition of Abkhazian independence (with this or that reservation), one cannot expect foreign-policy reversals from Sukhum. As a result, Moscow’s focus is on mediation, and not on the exclusive support of this or that candidate. It remains to take the next logical step, namely, not to limit mediation to exclusively anti-crisis formats, helping, in the language of the military, to “harmonise” the authorities and the opposition in order to solve the strategic tasks of the future development of Abkhazia.

Sergey Markedonov, Leading Researcher, Centre for Euro-Atlantic Security, Institute of International Studies, MGIMO.

This article was published by Eurasia Expert and is translated from Russian. 

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