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Insight into Georgia’s Self-Proclaimed Abkhazia

Abkhazia has seen an unprecedented amount foreign exposure in the last few months. First, it caught the attention of international media thanks to the Sochi Olympics, conducted just a few miles away from the Abkhazian section of the Georgian-Russian border. Recent events in Ukraine have doubled interest towards this tiny Caucasus region; the occupation of Crimea resonated with what happened six years ago in Georgia, when Russian president, Vladimir Putin, took advantage of local skirmishes and established a firm military presence in the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

June 6, 2014 - Tornike Zurabashvili - Articles and Commentary

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In recent days, Abkhazia appeared on foreign radars again with the forceful takeover of government headquarters and a TV station which resulted in the resignation of the region’s leader, Aleksandr Ankvab, but most importantly – the events in Sokhumi sparked a discussion over Russia’s future plans regarding the further integration of Abkhazia.

Five Day Crisis

The year-long political tensions in Sokhumi have culminated into a large scale public rally on May 27th, gathering between 5,000 and 10,000 protesters, a very high number by Abkhazian standards. Following failed negotiations between the leadership and the opposition, several hundred protesters stormed the presidential headquarters and demanded his resignation. Ankvab fled to his home town of Gudauta and refused to step down, calling the opposition to maintain constitutional order.

On May 29th, Ankvab agreed to dismiss the prime minister, Leonid Lakerbaia, as a concession to the opposition. However, the opposition rejected this offer and began forming an alternative government – the provisional Council of National Trust. Ankvab lost legislative support as the Abkhaz Assembly voted in favour of dismissing the prime minister in a vote of no confidence and called upon the president to resign voluntarily. Ankvab refused to accept the parliamentary orders and argued that the powers for discharging cabinet members rested solely with the president.

Ankvab’s reluctance to cede power was responded by a parliamentary resolution on May 31, which appointed Valery Bganba, the parliamentary chairman, as the interim president and set August 24th as the date for new presidential elections.

Following the consultations with Russian envoys, Ankvab decided to resign on June 1st. He argued that the decision was made based on the “considerations of preserving stability in the country”. A day later, Lakerbaia left his post as well. The cabinet remains functioning until the presidential elections.

Origins of the Political Crisis in Abkhazia

A close analysis of the situation shows that a seemingly sudden eruption of political tensions in Abkhazia’s capital has not been unexpected. A number of outside and inside political-economic factors have paved the way for the forceful takeover of power. What helped fuel the outcry was the severe economic hardship that Abkhazia is experiencing. Six years after Russia’s recognition, Abkhazia remains internationally isolated, battling with growing economic and social problems. The economy is shrinking and its budget is more and more dependent on Kremlin donations, which have been steadily decreasing as well.

The most influential factor however, was the de facto president himself. Over the course of the last few years Ankvab has managed to dissatisfy many influential segments and personalities in the Abkhaz society. As a result, his opponents labelled him an “authoritarian ruler” with his tighter control over businesses, leading to six unsuccessful assassination attempts over the course of last 10 years.

Ankvab was frequently accused of centralising power and shutting the doors to the opposition. Many of its influential members in Anqvab’s party, United Abkhazia, abandoned him.  Subsequently, in July 2013, four political parties and five public organisations created an opposition Consultative Council, an entity that was instrumental in the recent demonstrations. Two community organisations representing ethnic Russian citizens of Abkhazia later joined the movement, a clear indication that Ankvab was losing support of the Russian leadership. The opposition’s initial demand was for greater political inclusiveness but they later added forming a coalitional government and, finally, an ultimatum to dismiss the entire cabinet. Ankvab showed no responsiveness to the opposition’s calls.

One more important criticism to Ankvab was concerning his support to the so called “passportisation of ethnic Georgians” in eastern Abkhazian provinces of Gali and Ochamchire. Approximately 26,000 of the estimated total 50,000 ethnic Georgians who have returned sporadically to these two districts, possess Abkhaz passports. The passportisation process was launched in 2009 under the previous leader Sergei Bagapsh and his policy was continued Ankvab, a move that was met with anger in the Abkhaz political spectrum. The reasoning for the two Abkhaz leaders have been more pragmatic than humanitarian though, the Abkhaz passports allow Georgians to exercise their electoral rights, which the ruling elite is always eager to exploit, and the opposition was reluctant to accept this – fearing the rise of the “fifth column” and “Georgianisation” of Abkhazia.

Russia’s Old New Favourite

While there may well be truly local reasons behind the events in Abkhazia, one thing is clear – by capitalising on internal disagreements, Russia has replaced its defiant partner with a more pro-Russian leadership. It is no secret that Putin has never been particularly happy with Ankvab and his policies. In 2011, when Ankvab obtained a decisive victory over Raul Khadjimba (head of the provisional Council of National Trust), Putin and his envoys openly supported the later. It would be a mistake, however, to call Ankvab anti-Russian. He was pro-Russian, but his quest for autonomous governance frustrated not only the Abkhaz society but the Russian leadership as well. The ousted Abkhaz president has been cautious of accommodating some of Russia’s interests in Abkhazia.

Fearing that the liberalisation of regulations would lead to catastrophic demographic consequences, Ankvab showed reluctance to allowing changes in the law of Abkhazia regulating real estate matters, an issue that Russian businesses and leadership had been pushing for some time. Current legislation does not permit foreign citizens to own land or houses in Abkhazia on the grounds that the inflow of foreigners would damage the ethnic status quo favouring the Abkhaz.

Abkhazia was effectively excluded from Sochi Olympics and their hopes for wider international recognition and economic benefits faded away as the Olympics were brought to the end. The creation of an 11-kilometere long security zone into the western Abkhazian section of the Russian-Georgian border during the Sochi Olympics has been met with mixed feelings among Abkhazians; some feared that the Russians would penetrate further into Abkhazia and not lift the restrictions once the Olympics were over.

Ankvab was also against the opening of a direct railway link that would run through Abkhazia and Georgia proper and connect Russia to Iran, a strategic project for Russia’s regional ambitions. On its part, Russia opposed building a direct road from Abkhazia to the North Caucasus, fearing that it would decrease the economic and political dependency of Abkhazia. The road would have run through Kodori Gorge (vacated by ethnic Georgians as a result of ethnic cleansing during the Russian-Georgian War of 2008) and connect Abkhazia with their closest ethnic kin – the Circassians and Abazins.

When the tensions finally erupted in Sokhumi, Russia immediately deployed its special envoys: Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s political advisor, and Rashid Nurgaliyev, deputy secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council. The official Kremlin position was that the developments were “internal Abkhazian affairs”, they said nothing in support of Ankvab as the “legitimate government” and spent most of their time in Abkhazia trying to convey and argue for the messages of Raul Khadjimba to the incumbent president. What’s more, by acting against Ankvab, Russia has left a clear message for future Abkhaz leaders: steps that are not in line with Russian interests will not be tolerated and will lead to their political downfall. 

The official Georgian reaction has been cautious but watchful. Georgia’s concern in this situation is the fate of its ethnic kin living in Gali and Ochamchire districts bordering Georgia proper. Since Georgia is about to finalise the Association Agreement with the European Union on June 27th, there is a legitimate temptation to attribute these two events with each other. Many in the Georgian political spectrum fear that the vulnerability of ethnic Georgians and the prospect for Abkhazia’s annexation will be used by Russia to halt its progress towards the European Union.   

Prospects for the Future of Abkhazia

Like the political system of Abkhazia, recent events have failed to include Abkhazia’s entire population. The protest movement has not gone beyond Sokhumi and failed to include all segments of Abkhazia’s society. For instance, out of 21 members of the provisional Council of National Trust, 20 were ethnic Abkhaz men and the overwhelming majority of them aged 50. This coupled with the fact that more than half of Abkhazia’s pre-war population remains unable to return home and is excluded from the political processes leaves little hope for Abkhazia’s ethnocracy to transition into a truly functioning democratic system.

Regardless of the opposition’s promises to address the “systemic” crisis in Abkhazia (including limiting presidential powers and increasing government transparency), it is unlikely that the new leadership will deliver radical political or economic reforms. Neither political will nor human resources would allow that; the very same politicians have been rotating public posts for the last two decades and Abkhazia has been steadily descending into clientelism. Moreover, in the absence of a clear leader, the new leadership will find it increasingly difficult to find consensus over the course of reforms. What united them until now was Ankvab and it is highly probable that his absence in active politics will become the very reason for their fragmentation.

The August elections will be interesting to observe, but won’t change much for Abkhazia’s foreign outlook, its state of economy or the political system. The only ones whose situation is unequivocally to worsen are the ethnic Georgians living in eastern Abkhazia. Although large scale ethnic cleansing similar to that of 1993, 1998 and 2001 is unlikely to occur again, the already severe situation of ethnic Georgians will deteriorate further.

Tornike Zurabashvili is a Research Intern at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies

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