For the first week or so after the unexpected death of President Sergei Bagapsh this morning, following surgery in Moscow, Abkhazia will predominantly be mourning. But then the question of his succession will inevitably come up. In line with the constitution, Vice President Alexander Ankvab is now acting President, but an election has to be organised within three months, that is before August the 29th.
Had Bagapsh not died, Abkhazia could possibly have enjoyed three more years of steady growth and a dozen or so of additional countries to recognise its independence. This could have strengthened Abkhazia’s statehood to an extend where even a bad outcome of the next election would not have been able to do as much damage as e.g. President Kokoity is doing now for South Ossetia. However, this was not to be, which means that a lot depends on the qualities of the next President of Abkhazia.
Conversely, as wry as it may sound, Bagapsh’s death may also have positive consequences for Abkhazia. It is a cynical fact that now that he has passed away, Bagapsh’s legacy will be very positive, which will both set a positive norm domestically and improve Abkhazia’s reputation abroad. Also, the fact in itself that Abkhazia will now witness another democratic transition will have similar effects. And while a new President could disappoint, this does not need to be the case. After Bagapsh became President, a lot changed for the better. But many reforms seem to have slowed down, and his government has failed to solve any of the bomb attacks that have hit Abkhazia during the last couple of years, nor the murder of Deputy Minister for Internal Affairs Zakan Jugelia, nor any of the four attempts at Alexander Ankvab’s life. Add to this the general impression that too many Abkhazian official see their post as a business opportunity first and a responsibility to be taken serious second, and it is clear that there is a lot of room for improvement which an energetic newcomer could tackle.
So what are the likely candidates in the upcoming election?
Within the government there are two obvious candidates, Alexander Ankvab and Sergei Shamba. Both have aspired to the Presidency in the past and may find that now the time is ripe to achieve their ambitions.
Ankvab is a member of Aitaira, which was formed in the Nineties by government officials who were dissatisfied with President Ardzinba’s policies. Ankvab was planning to run in the 2004 election to succeed Ardzinba, but his candidacy was rejected on the grounds that he did not satisfy the residency requirement and competence in the Abkhaz language. This was probably foul play, but it led Ankvab to support Sergei Bagapsh’s candidacy, and he became Prime Minister after the latter had won the election and the ensuing stand-off with Ardzinba’s preferred candidate Raul Khajimba (the ‘Tangerine revolution’). Then, in 2009, when Bagapsh was re-elected, Ankvab became his Vice-President. If he chooses to run, Ankvab could take his ally, chairman of Aitaira and First Vice-Premier Leonid Lakerbaia as his running mate. Alternatively he could pick Natela Aqaba, chair of the Public Chamber which unites civil society representatives.
Shamba too is a very experienced politician, perhaps even more so than Ankvab. He became Minister for Foreign Affairs in 1997 and held the post until 2004 when he resigned in protest following the murder of opposition member Garri Aiba and to prepare his own candidacy for the presidency. In the election, he scored a respectable third place behind Bagapsh and Khajimba and thus established himself as an independent force. The post-election crisis eventually ended with a power-sharing agreement between Bagapsh and Khajimba under which Khajimba (who became Vice-President) selected Shamba to serve once more as Foreign Minister. Khajimba eventually left the government to try his luck again in the 2009 election, but Shamba stayed on and declared himself neutral, allowing him to take Ankvab’s place as Prime Minister after Bagapsh’s re-election.
Interestingly, neither Ankvab nor Shamba is a member of the main governing party United Abkhazia. Shamba used to be a member but was ejected in 2005 for running as an independent candidate in the 2004 election after he had lost the Vice-Presidential party nomination to historian Stanislav Lakoba. This leaves open the possibility that United Abkhazia might field its own candidate, who would stand a decent chance, since United Abkhazia has by far the best Abkhazian party network. United Abkhazia’s chairman Daur Tarba might be that candidate. His career has seen a steady upward trajectory during the last years, culminating in his becoming Vice-Premier in 2010, following Bagapsh’s re-election. However, he unexpectedly resigned last February, and some have mooted that Tarba’s Presidential ambitions had something to do with it. If so, these elections may come too early for his plans.
It also remains to be seen what the third government party, Amtsakhara, will do, which consists mainly of war veterans. It is no longer as influential as when it was first formed in the latter years of Ardzinba’s presidency, but it has a solid core base of supporters and counts some government ministers among its members. As such, it may prove to be a useful junior partner in any Presidential bid, and possibly field a Vice-Presidential candidate.
Among the ranks of the opposition, Raul Khajimba is the most obvious contender. He is still the most prominent leader of the opposition and has clearly not given up on his presidential elections. A second possible candidate is businessman Beslan Butba, who has initiated a lot of social projects, has styled himself as a new type of politician with no ties to Ardzinba’s government and also participated in the 2009 election, although his result there was disappointing. A third figure worth mentioning is Emma Tania, who is currently Vice-Speaker of the People’s Assembly and has been relatively active lately. All opposition politicians have one common problem, and that is the death of Sergei Bagapsh. People are still relatively satisfied with the current government, and it will be hard to criticise the policies of a dead hero, for Bagapsh will surely now be eulogised.