George Hewitt | Special to Abkhaz World
In the wake of Georgian president Mikheil Saak’ashvili’s incursion into South Ossetia late on 7 August 2008 and the huge Russian military response that it provoked, the Abkhazian government under President Sergej Bagapsh seized the opportunity to regain control of the one piece of their territory that had remained in Georgian hands since the end of the 1992-93 Georgian-Abkhazian war, the Upper K’odor Valley. On 12 August, Abkhazian forces moved out of the Lower Valley and found to their astonishment that the Georgian troops, illegally introduced there by Saak’ashvili in 2006, had fled (along with most of the local Svan residents). With control thus easily reestablished, Abkhazia, along with the rest of the world, waited to see what the outcome of the South Ossetian war would be.
The principal consequence was the recognition swiftly delivered to both Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russian president Dmitry Medvedev on 26 August. In Abkhazia’s presidential elections at the end of 2009, the incumbent was duly re-elected to his second term, no doubt partly because of the kudos accruing from the achievements of the previous August and despite reservations about the nature of some of the agreements he had signed with Moscow regarding frontier-defence and rights to refurbish the railway and airport. Constitutionally denied a third term, Bagapsh felt that in the years up to 2014 he would be free from the constraints imposed by thoughts of participating in a future election to do what he personally thought best for his country. But he was not destined to implement whatever plans he had in mind, for on 29 May 2011 he died in a Moscow hospital of complications following what should have been a straightforward operation for a smoker’s lung-complaint.
Bagapsh always acknowledged that the process of achieving wider recognition for Abkhazia would be slow. Though Nicaragua and Venezuela were quick to emulate Russia, only two other UN members have since dared to challenge the anti-Abkhazian stance of the wider international community, namely the Pacific island-states of Nauru and Vanuatu. Indeed, the relevant documents were signed with Vanuatu during the final days of Bagapsh’s life. In 2009 the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus, Peter Semneby (Sweden), had advocated a policy towards Abkhazia of ‘engagement without recognition’. Though Bagapsh told me in 2010 that there had been little to indicate that such a policy was being activated, might one conjecture a connection with the invitation to address the Oxford Union (and perhaps even Chatham House, a think-tank associated with the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office) that Bagapsh received in early 2011? The British government had reportedly promised the necessary visa. Final touches were being put to his speech at the time of his death. Another break-through in Bagapsh’s final months was his visit to Turkey, where the largest Abkhazian community is located in the post-1864 diaspora. As neighbour to, and trading-partner with, both Abkhazia and Georgia, as home to Abkhazian as well as Georgian communities, as a NATO-member, and also as aspirant to EU membership, Turkey could play a crucial role in contributing to the long-desired resolution of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict.
Slow improvements in the Abkhazian economy have been noticeable year on year since Vladimir Putin, early in his presidency, unilaterally overturned the blockade imposed by his predecessor and by the CIS in an attempt to bring the Abkhazians to heel, a harsh measure conveniently ignored by pro-Georgian commentators who speak of Russia’s long-standing ‘support for’, and/or ‘manipulation of’, the Abkhazians in order to thwart Georgian independence. More and ever smarter hotels and restaurants spring up in the capital (Sukhum) and the northern resorts of Pitsunda and Gagra, but the focus of the fighting during the war with Georgia, the Ochamchira Region in the south-east, still awaits investment and regeneration. A plan to develop Ochamchira town into what seemingly has the potential to be the best deep-water port along the Black Sea’s eastern littoral is only now being revived, though an initial survey of its potential was carried out over a decade ago. However, prices, a widespread less-than-satisfactory service-mentality (a legacy from Soviet times), and difficulty crossing the border with Russia (especially for vehicles) have meant that fewer (Russian) tourists than might otherwise have been expected have chosen to spend their summers in Abkhazia. This problem was aggravated this year by two factors. Firstly, despite a promise to ease traffic across the Psou, the pedestrian and vehicular crossings, separated for some years, were merged into one, while improvements are carried out on the foot-bridge, which has led to long queues in the sweltering summer heat. Secondly, a dispute over the ownership and future of a sanatorium positioned in a prime location on the Sukhum sea-front has resulted in their closure for the dreaded refurbishment (‘remont’) with consequent loss of clientele, employment and income. One would have thought that the tourist-season might have been allowed to pass undisturbed.
Celebrations of Recognition Day this year were shared with the unanticipated presidential election, and consequently the usual public celebrations (concerts, fireworks) were forgone. Three candidates stood: Alexander Ankvab, one-time Interior Minister and businessman, who served as Bagapsh’s most recent Vice-President and has survived more than one assassination-attempt; Sergej Shamba, academic, long-serving Foreign Minister under both Bagapsh and his predecessor (and thus best known to those in the West who have dealt with Abkhazia), but most recently Prime Minister; Raoul Khadzhimba (Hadzhymba), one-time Prime Minister and anointed successor to Abkhazia’s first president, Vladislav Ardzinba, who eventually joined with Bagapsh and served as his deputy during the latter’s first term in office; Khadzhimba’s background is in the security service, and his running-mate was Svetlana Dzhergenia, Ardzinba’s widow. Ankvab and Shamba resigned in July from their respective offices to run their campaigns, leaving the interim-presidency in the hands of Nugzar Ashuba, Speaker of Parliament. The state-TV allotted equal time to each candidate’s campaign, shewing every night (excerpts from) their meetings, which were held the length and breadth of this small country, including in the Mingrelian-dominated Gal District, and also granted plenty of air-time to interviews with the leaders of each campaign and their supporters. Electioneering materials were produced relatively early by Shamba and Khadzhimba, but in this respect the Ankvab was late off the mark; by the end of the campaign, relevant materials had been delivered to each residence. On the street, one regularly heard that the overwhelming need was for a leader who could impose order and deal with corruption, with Ankvab seen as the most competent in this respect. It was, however, widely recognised that each candidate had positive and negative features, and the race remained quite open to the end.
Election-day passed without incident, and polling-stations were visited by a wide variety of observers from countries as divergent as Russia (naturally), Switzerland, France, Italy, San Marino, Japan and Nauru. Ankvab was declared the winner at noon on 27 August with over 54% of the ballot. He will now be faced with a continuing plethora of problems, but essentially the same overriding issue will remain how best to steer a course that will preserve Abkhazia’s independence. The anti-Abkhazian policies adopted by America and Europe since the collapse of the USSR, whilst supposedly designed to pressure Abkhazia into yielding to reincorporation into a hostile Georgia, have achieved exactly the opposite, driving the country yearly closer to Russia. Intelligent people might be expected quickly to realise that pursuit of counter-productive policies should be reversed, but this inevitable realisation with respect to Abkhazia has thus far eluded Western policy-makers. And so, one finds, for example, the American Senate lately seduced into voting in support of the Georgian propagandist assertion that Abkhazia is an ‘occupied territory’, an absurdity, manifest to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the nature of life in the republic. Even more recently those knowledgeable about Abkhazian affairs will have been appalled (not to say sickened) by the level of ignorance revealed in essays by two members of the UK Parliament: the Rt. Hon. Bruce George
(http://www.thecommentator.com/article/379/sham_elections_in_abkhazia_should_not_distract_us_from_finding_peace_in_the_caucasus), and Denis MacShane in his ‘Abkhazian Elections: Russia's pawn in Georgian game?’, published on the Open Democracy website, which by deeming such an error-riddled piece to be worthy of publication has merely besmirched its own reputation.
As long the policies of the world’s major power are based on such lamentable ignorance of basic realities as revealed in the Senate’s resolution or articles carrying the names of British MPs who merely serve as the mouthpieces for Georgian propaganda, problems will continue to elude obvious solutions. In the case of Abkhazia, this is international recognition, as recently advocated by even Eduard Shevardnadze, who, as leader of Georgia’s then-State Council, unleashed the war in Abkhazia on 14 August 1992 in the first place, to be followed by: help to establish good-neighbourly relations with Georgia; massive investment to revive the economy; and advice on the mechanisms for constructing the most effective pluralistic society in the complex conditions existing within Abkhazia, where the interests of not only the Abkhazians but also the other ethnic groups now resident (or desirous of returning to reside) there will be safeguarded to everyone’s mutual advantage.
George Hewitt is professor of Caucasian languages at London's School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS).
See also: Abkhazia: presidential election, political future by George Hewitt | openDemocracy