Presidential Elections in Abkhazia: A Changing Society in a Fixed Context, by Iraklii Khintba
International Alert - September 2011
The fifth presidential elections in recent history of Abkhazia ended in the convincing victory of Aleksandr Ankvab who received 54.9 percent of the votes. The former Prime Minister, Sergei Shamba, whose campaign was particularly aggressive, fell behind the favourite by almost 35 percent of the votes, receiving almost fewer votes than the outsider candidate, the leader of the opposition Raul Khadjimba (19.8 percent) who played a very important stabilising role in the election campaign.
The elections attracted significant attention from external stakeholders. Russia sent a large number of observers from politicians, deputies, and experts.. There were international observers from a dozen countries and even a member of the European Parliament from Hungary.
The European Union, USA and NATO did not recognise the legitimacy of the elections, thus strengthening the already common perception in Abkhaz society of the “fixed unfavourability” of the international context. Nevertheless, the West did not totally ignore the elections, considering it necessary to issue special statements on the matter.
More western and Russian experts, pleasantly surprised even with the democratically contested elections in 2004-2005, are beginning to talk about the ‘merits of Abkhaz democracy’ and of true competitiveness of the political process in Abkhazia. Indeed today, it is perfectly reasonable to talk about the formation in Abkhazia of an ‘electoral democracy’. The signs are evident: regular freely contested elections, the relative fairness and transparency of electoral procedures, and the unpredictability of the results due to real competition between political groups.
Real competition at these elections was achieved mostly because of the dispersion of administrative and financial resources, which sometimes spontaneously formed around two of the candidates of the ruling elite – Ankvab and Shamba. Moreover the candidates were given equal airing time on the state TV channel and independent journalists had a real opportunity to ask them the most uncomfortable questions live on television. In Abkhaz society, where everyone knows each other and everything about each other, it would be arrogant and simply impossible to avoid direct contact with the people, relying instead only on PR technologies. Therefore the candidates preferred direct contact with the voters, visiting even the smallest settlements in Abkhazia.
A particularly important aspect of these elections was the reduction in significance of the ‘ethnic vote’. So, the largest minorities – the Armenians and the Russians – voted according to their civic identity. Despite the significant majority of votes for Ankvab in the Gal district, there was no evidence of any pressure on the Georgian population there to vote for him.
Yes, it is possible to find shortcomings in the organisation of the elections, the compiling of voter lists and other procedures. Of course, in Abkhazia, the voter makes a choice still, to some extent, according to personal and emotional factors, rather than conceptual (ideological): there are few who actually read the candidates’ election manifestos. Abkhazia has not yet gone through the ‘two-turnover test’ of Samuel Huntington, when power passes from one political group A to political group B (as in 2004-2005) and then is handed back to group A through constitutional, peaceful procedures. But who else in the post-Soviet space, except perhaps for Ukraine, can boast this? The complete calm within society and self-restraint of the supporters of the losing candidates after the results were announced is evidence of real progress in the democratic development of Abkhazia; while the election of Aleksandr Ankvab is a sign of a certain normative transformation of Abkhaz society.
The Ankvab phenomenon and the end of an ideological era
I think the future biographer of Aleksandr Ankvab will surely make the conclusion that this man succeeded in carving an outstanding political career for himself. The transformation from ‘outcast’ to president – is not only down to the remarkable personal strength and outstanding qualities of Ankvab himself, but is also evidence of dynamic and open political processes in Abkhazia.
Ankvab’s coming to power signifies the ending of the ‘Ardzinba era’. That is, not only because the ‘opponent’ or ‘antagonist’ of the first Abkhaz president has won the elections, but Abkhaz society, apparently, has entered into a post-ideological phase, when politics and politicians, and in society in general, are driven mostly by moderate pragmatism and stability imperatives, rather than idealism, alarmism and stand-offs against external threats or other types of extreme mass mobilisation. Charismatic legitimacy has gradually given way to rational-legal, based not on absolute faith in the personality of the leader, but on an assessment of the efficiency and concrete results of his actions.
It is very hard to imagine Ankvab as a “popular leader” charged with the “energy of the masses”. This is a different type of man. Ankvab, to a great extent, is a pragmatic and a technocrat, rather than a traditionalist and idealist. His concept of leadership of the country is rather rational and managerial. His nationalism is manifested, primarily, in strengthening the state, and has little in common with discriminative ethno-nationalism. In a pre-election meeting with young people, Ankvab gave a telling response to a question on a national vision for Abkhazia. Instead of the usual traditionalistic set of principles including ‘Apsuara’ (the moral-ethical code of conduct of the Abkhaz people), “physical and spiritual security” and strengthening of the “moral health” of the nation, Ankvab suggested two universal modernistic ideas: education and healthcare.
Ankvab won, because he captured this tendency – the weakening of the ideological mobilisation of Abkhaz society. He realised that the best ideology for today is a productive labour. The period of exaltation has passed – a workaday life has begun. Sergei Shamba tried to play an ideological, slogan-filled, irrational game – and was defeated. Ankvab did not promise anything, except a readiness to work hard.
Establishing order, obliteration of foreign policy or the slide towards authoritarianism?
A demand for a ‘strong hand’ has arisen in Abkhaz society, and there are certain social reasons for this. Most of all, there is growing social inequality due to the unbridled enrichment of a small segment of society that has access to administrative resources and engages in corrupt practices. More and more, people are facing unfairness and a lack of equality before the law, whether due to lack of financial resources, or lack of other influence or on ethnic grounds. Abkhaz society is beginning to realise that Abkhazia has stopped being the ‘endeavour of all’ – a common project, co-creation of the people. In such conditions, people want justice and order – even if that means it is severe – but for everybody. People associate the achievement of such an imperative, spurred to some extent by social resentment, with Aleksandr Ankvab.
Ankvab is known as a secretive and authoritarian character, though he denies this himself. His manifesto, along with many bright ideas, suggests the optimisation of state governance, which practically boils down to the centralisation of power and the establishment of appropriate vertical power structures – which alarms liberals and democrats as an analogy of Russian reality. His manifesto says nothing about perfecting the mechanisms of horizontal and vertical accountability – the system of checks and balances and the stimulation of civil activeness and local self-governance. There is a phrase such as ‘we don’t need foreign advisers on building civil society outside their own country’, since civil society in Abkhazia must be rooted in its ‘own values’. The task of modernisation in democratic (political) terms is not mentioned to the same degree as the struggle against corruption.
Ankvab’s manifesto, just like the programmes of other candidates, is extremely non-specific on foreign policy. Foreign policy is mentioned only in terms of an instrument to strengthen relations with the Russian Federation – and there is not a word about a ‘multi-vector’ policy. The need for international recognition is expressed in a dry and uncertain manner. On the one hand, this reflects the reduction in significance of foreign perspectives in public discourse, which is due to the establishment of relative stability and security. On the other hand, Abkhazia remains isolated from the international community, the conflict with Georgia is not resolved and the external context remains uncertain. Ignoring these problems seems to be unreasonable, but are there currently any stimuli for Ankvab to resolve them?
Let us remind those who fear Ankvab’s authoritarian proclivities, that the main feature of horizontally structured Abkhaz society is its consensual and contractual character. Traditional structures and informal ties did not allow the type of totalitarianism, which was so rampant in Russia, to take root in Abkhazia during Soviet times, and these structures and connections are today also a reliable protection from despotic and arbitrary power. Ankvab announced after his election that ‘there will be no dictatorship’. The new president will have to negotiate with society and agree his policies with them. Нe understands this very well and has already begun consultations, including with representatives of NGOs, about the future personnel and functional configuration of the administrative system.
In general, Ankvab will have it harder than his predecessor Sergei Bagapsh. Society has inflated expectations of him, of simultaneously bringing order, combating corruption, and achieving other “hard” goals. Ankvab has to become the president of an ‘ordinary country’ in an era of ‘non-extreme politics’, fulfilling his promises and effectively managing the state.
De-actualisation of the ‘Georgian factor’ and prospects for conflict transformation
One more sign of normative changes within Abkhaz society is the loss in significance of the “Georgian card” which is no longer an effective instrument in the internal political struggle. The interview with the former Georgian Minister of Defence Tengiz Kitovani, which Shamba’s supporters screened publically in the centre of Sukhum, gave a fateful blow to Shamba himself rather than to Ankvab, even though the interview was about the alleged collaboration of the then Minister of Interior, Aleksandr Ankvab, with the Georgian secret services during wartime Abkhazia (1992-1993). No one in Abkhazia believed the ‘executioner and bandit’ Kitovani, and to a large extent because people are tired of the exploitation of the Georgian theme. Today it can mobilise people only in the face of a direct physical threat. The people, now feeling secure since Russian recognition in August 2008, want to combat corruption, improve the quality of life and strengthen law and order. A whole generation has grown up with many not having even heard Georgian being spoken.
But why, when the society and state of Abkhazia are obviously changing, does the international context remain fixed and the perspectives for Georgian-Abkhaz conflict resolution and transformation remain totally uncertain?
The American political scientists, Alexander Cooley and Lincoln Mitchell, supporters of a pro-active western policy towards Abkhazia, consider the disregard of the Abkhaz elections by the main western actors to be ‘counter-productive’. They believe that this attitude prevents the normalisation of Georgian-Abkhaz relations, saying:
“By openly dismissing Abkhazia’s democratic aspirations and blindly supporting Tbilisi’s hard-line isolationism, the West denies itself the very levers of influence that could be wielded to nudge the Abkhaz leadership on status issues and related negotiations.
Putting aside the totally unrealistic prospect of negotiations on the status issue, I should note, that Cooley and Mitchell touched on one of the key issues of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict as it stands today: whether to recognise the Abkhaz authorities as a subject of the conflict, as the legitimate representative of the current population of Abkhazia and place them in the context of western conditionality – or to continue thoughtlessly ignoring reality, just as the Georgian authorities and many western officials have been doing since 2008. It is understood, that Georgian president Saakashvili doesn’t need democratic progress within the Abkhaz polity, as it would destroy the image of an ‘occupied territory’. But why should the internal democratic impulse of the Abkhaz people decay just because it is profitable to certain individuals in Tbilisi who are solely concerned with maintaining power?
In contrast to the ruling elites, the prominent Georgian opposition leader, Irakli Alasania declared that for him ‘the choice of the Abkhaz people is important’, which he evaluated as ‘worthy’. It is interesting that he and other commentators in Georgia welcomed Ankvab’s victory, reading into this a certain anti-Russian sentiment, because for some reason, Shamba was considered to be Moscow’s favourite at these elections. Maybe this perception spurred publications in the Georgian media about the potential for a ‘reboot of relations’ with Ankvab’s ascent.
Firstly, Ankvab’s election shouldn’t been seen as an anti-Russian thrust. Yes, there are grounds to suppose that Putin may not be too pleased with the election results. However, the Russian elite during Medvedev’s presidency has become more heterogeneous and as a result more flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances. President Medvedev was the first to congratulate Ankvab on his victory.
Secondly, I would like to remind the reader, that Bagapsh’s victory in 2005 was greeted in Georgia with even more glee as a victory ‘in spite of Russia’. And what do we have as a result? Bagapsh is now associated in Georgia with the recognition of Abkhazia and the complete freezing of the Georgian-Abkhaz process. Ankvab, judging by his multitude of interviews, is not original in his approaches to Georgia. But does he really have any legitimacy to offer anything new, when both he and the whole of society can see that the West’s relations towards Abkhazia remain almost unchanged?
Therefore, there will be no transformation of the conflict as long as the long-standing myth that Georgian-Abkhaz relations can be resolved only through the elimination of the Russian factor, or ‘to spite Russia’ continues to be reiterated. Russia is in the South Caucasus for a long time to come and with serious intent. It is essential to draw Abkhazia into an international context, but in order of this to happen, it is important to show a respect for the popular will of its citizens. It is impossible to de-isolate society and cooperate with it, while ignoring and slighting its elected authorities – in this regard, the Georgian strategy on the occupied territories offers bad advice. Otherwise the western perspective won’t gain legitimacy within Abkhaz society, and president Ankvab will be perfectly justified in saying that the stalled European strategy ‘Engagement without Recognition’ merely makes him smile. For this to happen, the West should stop supporting Saakashvili’s dubious attempts to further “fix” the current context and adopt a constructive approach towards Abkhaz society and authorities. The democratic election of the President of Abkhazia poses wonderful opportunity and excuse to do so.
Abkhazian State University
 Adam Przeworski has described the essence of electoral democracy as “institutionalised uncertainty”, when politicians “know what is the probability of winning or losing, but do not know they would win or lose”. A. Przeworski ‘Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America’, Cambridge University Press 1991.
 Michael Schwirtz, the NYT journalist, wrote, “The election, which was held on Friday, was fairly unusual for regions of the former Soviet Union in that the outcome was not known beforehand, and it appeared to adhere to democratic principles”. Michael Schwirtz, In Russia’s Shadow, Abkhazia Elects President, in The New York Times, Aug 27 2011. / http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/28/world/europe/28abkhaz.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=abkhazia&st=cse
 Samuel P. Huntington ‘The Third Wave: Democratisation in the Late Twentieth Century’ 1991.
 Ankvab - Minister of Internal Affairs of Abkhazia in 1992-1993 - was forced to leave the country in 1994 labelled a ‘traitor’, by Vladislav Ardzinba himself, after which he became a successful businessman in Moscow, though never giving up interest in politics in Abkhazia. It is Ankvab who played the central role in establishing and strengthening an opposition, primarily represented by the movement ‘Aitaira’, which began to dissolve the already disintegrating monolith that was the Ardzinba regime at the end of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s. His charity work, which brought him influential supporters, his skilful self-promotion, his firmness, combined with charm at the right time and occasion, his subtle political instinct – all this enabled Ankvab to strengthen his political position ahead of the 2004 presidential elections. Then he practically sacrificed his presidential ambitions and joined Bagapsh’s team, as he understood that a split in the opposition would be fatal. With the Bagapsh-Ankvab victory in 2004 – 2005, power had passed constitutionally from the ruling elite to the opposition, which was a significant milestone in the political development of Abkhazia. Two main political camps formed thereafter – an elite and contra-elite, according to the Pareto principle – the ‘Bagapshists’ and ‘Khadjimbists’. Aleksandr Ankvab became Prime Minister. Having survived four attempts on his life, after the re-election of Bagapsh in 2009 he took on the more strategic position of Vice-President, leaving the less desired role, in terms of presidential prospects, of Prime Minister to his main opponent, Sergei Shamba. The unexpected death of president Bagapsh in May 2011 and the short time-frame before the preterm elections of 26th August, cut off any chances for new pretenders to the presidential position to emerge. In conclusion, being the ‘crown princes’, Ankvab and Shamba, and opposition leader Raul Khadjimba formed a troika of candidates for the presidential position.
 Address to the electorate of candidate to the post of President of the Republic of Abkhazia by Aleksandr Zolotinkovich Ankvab. Available in Russian at: http://ankvab.ru/?p=1700#more-1700
 An analogy with the concept of an ‘ordinary country’, is proposed in relation to Russia, which must turn away from it’s ‘special way’ and join the community of democratic states.
 Alexander Cooley and Lincoln Mitchell, A Counterproductive Disdain, in The New York Times, Aug 31 2011. / http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/01/opinion/01iht-edcooley01.html?_r=2
 Irakli Alasania: ‘My namereni vesti seriozny dialog s Ankvabom’ [We intend to have a serious dialogue with Ankvab], 28.08.2001. Available in Russian at http://www.ekhokavkaza.com/content/article/24310134.html
 Asked how the future elections might influence relations with Tbilisi, Ankvab replied ‘a peace agreement – that is our future. And this will be the main thing for whoever comes to power in Abkhazia. We want to live in good-neighbourliness. We do not want war... Such a document can be signed, if there is a political will on the part of the Georgian leadership too." ‘Ankvab: Elections will not cause turbulence in Abkhazia’ Civil Georgia, 13 June 2011 available at http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=23609
Source: International Alert
- Russian Version: Президентские выборы в Абхазии: изменяющееся общество в застывшем контексте
The Georgian perspective on the same issue from Paata Zakareishvili, from the Tbilisi based Institute for the Study of Nationalism and Conflicts