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Analysis, book reviews and photography from Abkhazia and the wider Caucasus — updates when time permits

Proposal: compromise in Crimea

How do you solve a problem like Crimea? The optimistic answer is that Russia’s annexation was wrong, that the sanctions are right and that the West should continue putting pressure on Russia until it grudgingly relents and returns Crimea to Ukraine. The pessimistic answer is that Russia’s annexation was wrong, but that this is seemingly what Crimeans want and that Russia won’t return Crimea to Ukraine, so we had best — grudgingly — accept it.

I believe there might be room for compromise.

Crimea has never been very Ukrainian. As Russians like to point out, it only became part of Ukraine by personal fiat of Khrushchev and most of its inhabitants don’t identify as Ukrainian. In this light, proclamations of Crimea as Ukrainian soil that must be restored ring hollow.

On the other hand, Russia’s campaign to frame Crimea as quintessentially Russian is imperialistic and colonial. If Crimea has a Russian majority now, then only because of successive waves of ethnic cleansing of its Tatar (and Jewish) population by the Tsars, Stalin, Hitler and again Stalin. Since annexation, Russia has suppressed the rights of anyone who disagrees with its Russianness, including most of the remaining Tatars.

Crimea is not just Ukrainian, not just Russian, and first and foremost Crimean. Therefore, the West should offer to recognise Crimea as an independent state and lift sanctions, if it adopts a constitution that enshrines power sharing between Tatars and Russians on all levels, as well as protection of Ukraine’s cultural and economic interests. In addition, this agreement should be contingent on Russia’s active cooperation towards the reintegration of the Donbass into Ukraine.

Both sides would profit from this compromise. Resolving the Donbass conflict is Ukraine’s principal medium-term concern. Crimea would become less of a financial burden for Russia, while it would retain a degree of control, allowing it to keep its naval base in Sevastopol. Both sides would be able to present Crimean independence as partial vindication.

Filed under: Crimea, Donbass, Russia, Ukraine,

Explainer: Viacheslav Chirikba resigns as Foreign Minister of Abkhazia

On 20 September, Viacheslav Chirikba announced his resignation as Minister for Foreign Affairs of Abkhazia. Subsequent statements by him and President Raul Khajimba present diverging accounts of what happened.

Who is Chirikba?
Viacheslav Chirikba is a respected Caucasian linguist, educated in Kharkiv (Ukraine) and Leiden (the Netherlands). He has also acted as Abkhazia’s representative in Western Europe since the early nineties before being appointed as Foreign Minister in 2011 upon Alexander Ankvab’s election as President. He was one of a handful of government members to survive the revolution against Ankvab and the subsequent election of Raul Khajimba.

Why did Chirikba resign now?
Both accounts agree that he was not going to be re-appointed by Khajimba, so his resignation was not exactly voluntary. The previous Prime Minister, Artur Mikvabia, resigned in late July. Following standard procedure, the rest of the cabinet continued in caretaker mode. Khajimba appointed Mikvabia’s successor Beslan Bartsits in early August, and most ministers were either re-appointed or replaced in the weeks that followed. Conspicuously, Chirikba was neither re-appointed nor replaced, remaining in his post only as acting Foreign Minister, even while the new cabinet started working.

Why was Chirikba not re-appointed?
This is where the President and Chirikba disagree. The President’s office initially claimed Chirikba was not re-appointed because he refused to lead the Abkhazian delegation to Transnistria to attend the Republic Day celebrations in early September. Chirikba rejects the account of the President’s Office of that episode, and claims the decision not to re-appoint him had already been made at that point, although he doesn’t know why. This in fact appears more credible, because when the delegation visited Transnistria, the other ministerial appointments had already been made.

In a later press conference, Khajimba indicated Chirikba had not been active enough, that he had failed to deliver in time a foreign policy plan, and that as the head of the ministry, he was responsible for financial issues that have been discovered by the Chamber of Control. It is possible Khajimba was simply dissatisfied with Chirikba’s performance.

Why did Chirikba not go to Transnistria?
The President’s Office claims Chirikba refused to lead the delegation because he feared that if he were deported from Moldova, this would have consequences for travelling in Europe in the future. In the event, the delegation was led by Deputy Minister Oleg Arshba, who was indeed deported. As allegations go, this appears relatively harmless, especially since being able to travel through Europe should be a legitimate concern for a Foreign Minister. Chirikba himself claims that he had in fact planned to lead the delegation, but that on the eve of the departure, he suffered from an attack of hypertension, and that this is why he sent Arshba instead, and, moreover, that in doing so, he was not disobeying any direct order from President Khajimba.

What else does Chirikba say?
Chirikba claims that for the month leading up to his resignation, Khajimba refused to meet him to discuss important aspects of foreign policy, and in particular, that Khajimba was unreachable when he suffered his attack of hypertension that prevented him from visiting Transnistria and that instead, he received an angry phone call by Prime Minister Bartsits. Chirikba says that he originally submitted his resignation on 31 August, which must have been right after this phone call, but that he failed to obtain any reaction from Khajimba, and so now decided to make his resignation public.

As it stands, Khajimba comes out of this looking badly. His failure to either re-appoint Chirikba or to appoint someone else in time, and his apparent unwillingness to communicate with Chirikba betray a lack of professionalism and leadership, and have left him without a foreign minister.

How has Chirikba done as Foreign Minister?
There are two factors that complicate any evaluation of Chirikba’s track record. First, it is unclear how much the Abkhazian foreign ministry can do, given that its work is actively sabotaged by the West, and it is unclear how much support it receives from Russia. Second, the ministry does not discuss much of its activity openly, precisely because this would provide further opportunity for sabotage.

The biggest disappointment of Chirikba’s ministry is that he failed to increase the number of countries that recognise Abkhazia. In his defence, it has always seemed that his strategy was to pursue less visible long-term development, rather than short-term success stories, perhaps consciously foregoing further recognition by pacific island states that might be hard to consolidate, as in the case of Vanuatu and Tuvalu, in favour of building support in countries closer to home, in particular Turkey and Italy. His achievements include permanent representations there, friendship agreements on the regional and municipal level, a polling station for Abkhazian elections in Istanbul, the repatriation of members of the Abkhazian diaspora from Syria and the professionalisation of the foreign ministry.

Who succeeds Chirikba?
Daur Kove, who served as Deputy Minister between 2006 and 2010. Khajimba appointed Kove more than two weeks after Chirikba’s resignation, underlining the fact that he did not have a clear candidate at the time. Kove (1979) represents a younger generation, who may bring with him fresh energy and original ideas, although both Deputy Minister Kan Tania (1987) and Irakli Khintba (1983), another former Deputy Minister, who now leads the Russian theatre, might have made for even bolder choices.

Filed under: Abkhazia, , ,

Circassian returnees evicted from Russia

Last month, Liz Fuller reported that federal authorities in Kabardino-Balkaria have started evicting Circassian returnees from Turkey who don’t possess Russian citizenship. The immediate cause seems to be Russia’s present conflict with Turkey, but the measure is consistent with Russia’s resistance towards the return of descendants of those Circassians it expulsed in the nineteenth century — the survivors of the Circassian genocide.

Allowing members of the diaspora to return to Circassia would be historically just. Instead, while Russia encourages Russian expatriates to return to Russia by offering citizenship and financial reward, it has excluded the North Caucasus from this programme.

Even though there are three (partially) Circassian republics in the Russian Federation, these have little leeway for independent policy and no control over visas and residence permits. In particular, Circassians in Russia are weakest precisely in those regions to which most Circassians would ideally return: the lands which were most thoroughly emptied of Circassians in the nineteenth century.

In Kabardino-Balkaria, time can be said to be on the Circassians’ side. Reflecting trends throughout the North-Caucasus, the percentage of Kabardin has increased from 48.2% to 57.0% between 1989 and 2010, while the percentage of Russians has fallen from 31.9% to 22.5%. But Kabarda largely escaped the Circassian genocide, since it had already submitted itself to the Russian Empire at the time.

In contrast, in Adygea, the percentage of Adyge has also increased but was still only 24.3% in 2010 (up from 22.1% in 1989), with Russians a comfortable majority at 61.5% (down from 68.0%). This means that Russia could very easily sweep aside Adygea’s leadership. It would in all likelihood use the occasion to merge Adygea into Krasnodar Krai, which completely surrounds it, and where Circassians constitute less than 1% of the population. This would place the Adyge into a situation akin to that of the Tatars in Crimea.

Krasnodar Krai, where most of the diaspora originates from, remains the land where a Circassian renaissance is most distant.

Filed under: Adygea, Circassians, Kabarda, Krasnodar Krai, Russia,

Sergei Shamba elected chairman of United Abkhazia

At its sixth congress, held on 27 January, United Abkhazia elected as its chairman veteran politician Sergei Shamba.

Shamba, who was one of the Perestroika-era leaders of the National Forum Aidgylara, has been an independent political force since the 2004 presidential election. After seven years as Minister for Foreign Affairs, Shamba was to have been Sergei Bagapsh’s running mate, but had to relinquish that position to Stanislav Lakoba after United Abkhazia’s alliance with Amtsakhara. He subsequently decided to run for President instead, founding his own Social-Democratic Party. As a result of the power sharing deal between Bagapsh and Raul Khajimba, he rejoined the government as Foreign Minister, and no longer really needed the Social-Democratic Party, which dissolved into the opposition Forum for the National Unity of Abkhazia. (Aitaira similarly faded out of existence after Alexander Ankvab and Leonid Lakerbaia became Prime Minister and Vice Premier under Bagapsh.)

Shamba went on to become Prime Minister during Bagapsh’s second term but lost to Ankvab the 2011 presidential election that followed Bagapsh’s death. This was Shamba’s last opportunity, due to the presidential age limit of 65, and he subsequently retired from active politics. Shamba himself declared that he wanted to make way for younger politicians, hoping that Abkhazia had entered a new phase of sustained development and conflict-free transfers of power.

Shamba returned as one of the leaders of the protests that forced Ankvab to resign in May 2014. In December of that year, he was narrowly by-elected into Parliament, where he became the leader of a seven member-strong faction (out of 35). As chairman of United Abkhazia, he can reinforce his influence with a political party that has an existing machinery and quite extensive membership.

United Abkhazia was founded in 2004 by a number of prominent former government members. It became the ruling party after the election of Bagapsh, but went into opposition after Ankvab became President. Since then, it has been struggling to stay relevant. It supported the revolution against Ankvab, but remained outside the center of power (even though its original chairman Artur Mikvabia is currently Prime Minister) and doesn’t offer any clear political vision apart from the memory of Sergei Bagapsh.

United Abkhazia was in need of a new chairman since Daur Tarba resigned in October, perhaps specifically to make room for Shamba. The election of Shamba seems a classic case of a political party looking for popularity and a strong, well known individual politician finding each other.

United Abkhazia is formally the sister party of United Russia (and Unity in South Ossetia). That relationship never had much substance, but with Shamba at its head, who in Parliament has voiced support for concessions to Russia, it could develop into becoming the most pro-Russian party of Abkhazia.

Filed under: Abkhazia, ,

Vanuatu leaders still disagree over Abkhazia recognition

Less than three months ago, Vanuatu’s Foreign Minister Sato Kilman met with his Abkhazian counterpart Viacheslav Chirikba in Moscow and confirmed that although Vanuatu had established diplomatic relations with Georgia, it had never stopped recognising Abkhazia, and that he hoped relations with Abkhazia would soon be ‘finalised’ as well. While somewhat surprising, this statement was not directly contradictory, because there did not in fact seem to exist any explicit previous statement by Vanuatu terminating its recognition of Abkhazia.

That is, until now, because last week Kilman was dismissed as Foreign Minister by Prime Minister Joe Natuman and in a press conference on Tuesday, Natuman listed Kilman’s meeting with Chirikba among the reasons for his dismissal, claiming that the government’s position had always been that Abkhazia is part of Georgia. (Of Natuman’s complaints, the most serious was that Kilman reportedly failed to properly represent Vanuatu’s support for West Papuan self-determination, in particular declaring that Vanuatu planned to open an embassy in Indonesia, a statement already publicly refuted by Natuman at the time.)

However, according to Natuman, the immediate reason for dismissing Kilman was his support for opposition plans to topple him. And in another twist befitting Vanuatu’s political tradition, today the opposition managed to pass a vote of no confidence against Natuman and to elect Kilman as the new Prime Minister.

Filed under: Abkhazia, The Great Recognition Game, Vanuatu, ,

Book review: The Horse, the Wheel, and Language by David W. Anthony

the horse, the wheel, and language - coverThe Horse, the Wheel, and Language — How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World

David W. Anthony

Princeton University Press, Princeton
November 2007
566 pages
ISBN: 978-0-691-05887-0

Probably the first great achievement of historical linguistics was the discovery of the Indo-European language family. We now know that Germanic, Romance, Slavic, Baltic, Greek, Albanian, Armenian, Iranian and Indic languages all descend from a common source: Proto-Indo-European (PIE). Most Indo-Europeanists today think that the speakers of PIE lived in the steppe north of the Black Sea, that the different sub-branches were formed when the speakers of PIE started to spread out around 4000BC, and that this process was fueled by the domestication of the horse.

However, there are alternative theories, the most prominent of which claims that the speakers of PIE lived in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), and that the split occurred around 7000BC, propelled by the spread of agriculture. Proponents of both scenarios agree that while many of the sub-families of PIE formed around the same time, one branch split off first: the now extinct Anatolian languages, the best known member of which was Hittite. Either the speakers of Anatolian moved to Anatolia from the steppe, or the remaining speakers of PIE moved out of Anatolia before splitting up into the other branches.

In The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, David W. Anthony explains in detail why most Indo-Europeanists favour the first option, using both linguistic and archaeological facts and showing how they reinforce each other (thus demonstrating the benefit of close cooperation between the two disciplines). The initial argument is linguistic. The reconstructed vocabulary of PIE contains terms that indicate that its speakers lived in a steppe environment. More to the point, it contains terms related to horses and chariots. We know from archaeological excavations that the horse was not domesticated until about 4000 BC, and before that it lived in the wild only in the steppes.

Anthony also provides a direct argument against the Anatolian origin-hypothesis. The speakers of Anatolian (attested around 2000BC) appear to have constituted a relatively small elite living among a mass of peoples that spoke non-Indo-European languages, including Hattic (possibly related to the North-West Caucasian languages). This makes sense if they were relatively recent newcomers, but it does not if they were the 5000 year old remainder of the culture that brought agriculture to the region. Furthermore, we know that agriculture came to Anatolia from the Middle East, but there is no trace of Indo-European there.

In themselves, these arguments may not appear insurmountable. But Anthony buttresses them by tracing the spread of Indo-European in the archaeological record, making use of many new excavations from recent years, published in Russian-language literature. In particular, he shows how Indo-European languages could reasonably have spread into Europe without directly replacing the population, through a series of patron-client relationships, in which successive groups of non-Indo-European speakers adopted Indo-European language alongside Indo-European culture and technology. Another highlight is the correspondence between funerary customs described in the Family Books of the Rig Veda, the oldest extant Indo-Iranian literature, and those practiced in archeaological sites of Sintashta and Arkaim, to the south-east of the Ural Mountains.

Anthony’s command of the archaeological literature is impressive, sometimes overwhelmingly so. The middle of the book contains a number of chapters that are filled to the brim with statistics of archaeological finds, alas leaving the reader struggling for guidance as to their significance with respect to his main argument.

The author also gives a good account of Indo-European linguistics, despite not originally being a linguist. There is a quibble to be had with his Indo-European language tree, which is unbalanced: very specific in some branches (Germanic, Slavic, Celtic), very coarse and incomplete in others (Romance, Greek, Armenian, Indo-Iranian). There is one moment of confusion when he suggests that there exists an empirical question (the ‘Indo-Anatolian hypothesis’) as to whether perhaps Anatolian should be considered a sister-language to PIE, rather than its eldest daughter. But this is purely a matter of definition: do we define PIE as the most recent common ancestor of the Indo-European languages with or without Anatolian? In either case there is a stage of PIE before and a stage after the split of Anatolian, and both stages are relevant. There may well be a real linguistic issue here but Anthony fails to make clear what it is.

Essentially, The Horse, the Wheel and Language is one long argument to substantiate the steppe-origin of Indo-European. What leaves most to be desired is that more time is not spent on competing explanations of the facts as Anthony presents them. It would have been satisfying to be informed at various junctions of the narrative whether alternative accounts exist at all, and if so, why they are to be discarded. That said, Anthony has succeeded in constructing a convincing history of the Indo-European languages and peoples, which is a great accomplishment. In particular, he shows how linguistic knowledge can open up prehistory, allowing us to learn about the history of peoples before it is written down.

Filed under: Book reviews, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, Wider Region, , , ,

Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Lugansk, Donetsk: the demerits of mutual recognition

On 13 May, President of the Donetsk People’s Republic Alexander Zakharchenko announced that it formally recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. On 28 January South Ossetia had already received recognition from Lugansk. This follows last year’s decision by South Ossetia to recognise Lugansk (18 June) and Donetsk (27 June). The People’s Council of Lugansk was to consider recognition of Abkhazia on 13 March, but that has so far not materialised.

Somewhat paradoxically, the formal statements of recognition by Lugansk and Donetsk are not very complimentary, because when a new state is formed (the position Lugansk and Donetsk consider themselves to be in) it does not as a matter of principle recognise the independence of established states. So if they had wanted to do Abkhazia and South Ossetia a favour, Lugansk and Donetsk should have simply treated their independence as self-evident.

There is a remarkable asymmetry between Abkhazia and South Ossetia in this matter. While South Ossetia has pushed ahead, agreeing to establish full diplomatic relations, opening representative offices in Lugansk and Donetsk on 16 April and receiving representative offices of Lugansk and Donetsk on 28 April, Abkhazia has so far resisted recognising either Lugansk or Donetsk.

Abkhazia’s reticence, waiting for the situation to stabilise and following Russia’s lead (which does not appear close to recognition), seems more prudent than South Ossetia’s eagerness. It is quite unfortunate for Abkhazia and South Ossetia that the narrative of Russia creating and controlling separatist movements and actively starting and prolonging wars and sustained violence, concocted as an explanation — mostly false and wholly unhelpful — for Georgia’s conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, is true in respect to Ukraine, Lugansk and Donetsk. Unsurprisingly, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are now often compared to the Ukrainian conflict. They may be best advised not to further strengthen this association, and limit their contacts with Lugansk and Donetsk to humanitarian and cultural support.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Donbass, South Ossetia, The Great Recognition Game

Vanuatu Foreign Minister: recognition of Abkhazia has “not changed”

In a 31 March interview with RIA Novosti, Vanuatu’s Foreign Minister Sato Kilman confirmed that Vanuatu does in fact still recognise Abkhazia.

Vanuatu’s recognition of Abkhazia’s independence has received a lot of pushback throughout the years. When the news first broke in 2011, Vanuatu’s representative to the United Nations Donald Kalpokas emphatically denied it was true when asked by the New York Times. And less than a month later, Sato Kilman was briefly unseated as Prime Minister by Edward Natapei, who very hastily published an error-ridden note in which he `cancelled and withdrew’ recognition. However, not before long Kilman was re-instated as Prime Minister and Vanuatu’s recognition of Abkhazia reconfirmed.

In 2013, Kilman was ousted as Prime Minister by a government led by Moana Carcasses Kalosil and having Natapei as Minister for Foreign Affairs. This government agreed to establish diplomatic relations with Georgia, and Donald Kalpokas (whose authority was unclear since he had been formally retired as representative to the United Nations) signed an agreement in which Abkhazia was explicitly stated to be part of Georgia. Georgia’s government also claimed that Carcasses had actually withdrawn Vanuatu’s recognition of Abkhazia, but there were no statements from ni-Vanuatu officials to back this up.

However, Carcasses’s government fell in May 2014 and Joe Natuman, who had been Foreign Minister under Natapei, has been Prime Minister since. Sato Kilman is Foreign Minister in this government and on 30 March, during a visit to Moscow to discuss relief following Hurricane Pam, he met with his Abkhazian counterpart Viacheslav Chirikba. The day after, he stated in an interview RIA Novosti that “nothing had changed” in respect to Vanuatu’s 2011 recognition of Abkhazia, and that Carcasses’s government had merely decided to pursue diplomatic relations with Georgia, noting that he didn’t consider these to be incompatible with relations with Abkhazia, which he hoped would soon be finalised.

It is clear that Vanuatu’s frequent government changes play an important role in its ambivalent attitude towards Abkhazia. And it may be the case that its contradictory statements have been influenced by the desire to remain on friendly terms with Russia on the one hand and with Western powers on the other. But part of the confusion is certainly also due to unclarity over what constitutes recognition and diplomatic relations. Despite the May 2011 document explicitly stating that Abkhazia and Vanuatu resolved to “establish diplomatic relations at the level of Ambassadors from the signing of this statement”, and despite Vanuatu’s Foreign Minister Alfred Carlot’s October 2011 explanation that “Vanuatu signed diplomatic relations with the Republic of Abkhazia”, it seems that Vanuatu considers diplomatic relations to not have been finalised. And so a number of ni-Vanuatu statements that have been interpreted as a denial of its recognition of Abkhazia in fact pertained only to having full diplomatic relations.

[Previous stories in this series]

Filed under: Abkhazia, The Great Recognition Game, Vanuatu, , , , ,

Reports of Abkhazia’s impending annexation are exaggerated

According to the most spurious headlines, Abkhazia’s annexation by Russia has just about already happened. And even some serious news outlets and commentators proclaim that the proposed Treaty on Alliance and Integration is a step in that direction and constitutes in terms of sovereignty a point of no return. But what exactly does the treaty say?

Many parts seem harmless. There is a common defence clause, similar to Article 5 of the NATO charter, and articles on economic harmonisation and financial and political assistance from Russia to Abkhazia.

The problematic clauses were exactly those that have met with most resistance by Abkhazians and that have now been addressed in a counter-proposal by the Abkhazian government, the Treaty on Alliance and Strategic Partnership. These were the provision that in case of war, Russia shall provide the Chief in Command of the joint army, that a joint body will investigate crime in Abkhazia, that the two countries will coordinate their foreign policy and the relaxed procedure for Russians to obtain Abkhazian citizenship.

None of this amounts to anything near annexation. Yes, a treaty can take on significance beyond its literal content. But there was no particular reason to believe that was the case here, and so the annexation rhetoric is if anything a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Of course, there is a real threat, which has long been known: the near total economical and political dependence of Abkhazia on Russia. But Georgia and the West have themselves to blame for this. Moreover, they cannot protest Russia curtailing Abkhazia’s sovereignty as long as they don’t recognise this sovereignty in the first place. Naturally, Georgia has used the threat of Russian annexation to try to win over Abkhaz hearts and minds. But a) this is not credible in light of the fact that the alternative it is offering to possible annexation by Russia is certain annexation by Georgia. And b) most Abkhaz would consider annexation by Russia by far the lesser evil.

That being said, the West and Georgia should try to defend Abkhazia against overbearing Russian influence. Unfortunately, there may not be much they can do, without explicitly appealing to Abkhazia’s independence. The current rhetoric, framed negatively against Russia, may have the counterproductive effect of weakening Abkhazian resistance to (parts of) this treaty. And the war in Ukraine has demonstrated that silent diplomacy may no longer stop Russia from overstepping certain boundaries.

Abkhazia is in the difficult situation that it needs economic and political support from Russia, and has little to offer in return but its sovereignty. The West should start to provide serious economic and governmental assistance to Abkhazia to undercut this logic.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Georgia, Russia,

Five tests for Raul Khajimba

Today, Raul Khajimba was inaugurated as the fourth President of Abkhazia — fifth if one counts Acting President Valeri Bganba. His first-round victory may have been very narrow, with 50.60% of the votes, but it was clear that he would otherwise have won the run-off against Aslan Bzhania, who only scored 35,88%.

The election served as something of an ex post facto legitimation of the May Revolution. Because it went down so easily, it was unclear whether Ankvab’s forced resignation really enjoyed the support of most Abkhazians. But this test at the ballot box was somewhat hampered by the fact that the old government was represented by Bzhania (even though he was careful to emphasise that he would not just leave everything unchanged if he were elected). His campaign was well-funded and active, but Bzhania suffered from three disadvantages. First, he was not a widely known political figure, serving as Head of the Security Service and having lived in Moscow before that. Second, the opposition managed to cast serious doubt on the legitimacy of his candidacy, arguing that he did not fulfill the five-year residency requirement since he had worked at the Embassy in Moscow until four and a half years ago. And third, Bzhania’s claim that he had worked for the Security Service throughout the 1992–1993 war with Georgia was questioned, which weakened his patriotic credentials. In order to defeat Khajimba, Ankvab’s team would have had to nominate either someone with more standing in society, which would have been quite difficult, or a young face who would have been able to outflank the opposition on its agenda of change.

That said, Khajimba has inspired enthusiasm among voters and has received a real popular mandate (of the four candidates, Khajimba managed to rally by far the most support from political parties and civil society groupings). In a certain way, the Khajimba-led coalition’s talk of reform reminds one (in both the good and the bad sense) of the revolutionary fervour of Mikhail Saakashvili’s post-Rose Revolution coalition — ironic, given that Khajimba was the establishment’s losing candidate in Abkhazia’s own 2004 Tangerine Revolution.

Abkhazia’s very weak economy and administration and the hostility and indifference of most countries other than Russia mean that Khajimba may find that he won’t be able to do things much differently than Ankvab. Building up Abkhazia’s economy, establishing an efficient government and eradicating corruption certainly are long-term projects. In the short-term, Khajimba’s transition from opposition leader to statesman will be put to a number of smaller tests:

  • The opposition has said that its goal is not simply to fill all government positions with members from its own ranks, and that Ministers who were performing well could stay on. Khajimba should honour this pledge when he appoints the new cabinet.
  • One of the opposition’s major grievances was what it perceived to be the illegal distribution of Abkhazian passports to Georgian residents who also hold on to their Georgian citizenship. After the May Revolution, the opposition-controlled Parliament very dubiously removed Georgian residents from the electoral roll until their citizenship is re-evaluated. This re-evaluation should be held quickly, most Georgians should retain their Abkhazian citizenship and there should be a clear perspective towards citizenship for the rest.
    Khajimba has also criticised Ankvab for not solving delays at Abkhazia’s single border crossing with Russia, while building additional border crossings with Georgia. However, this latter fact really counts among Ankvab’s achievements, and Khajimba ought not to close down again these new crossings, as he has announced he may do.
  • During the campaign the opposition repeatedly criticised Central Election Commission Head Batal Tabagua, for allowing Bzhania’s registration, because the electoral rolls contained many dead or otherwise suspect entries, which Tabagua claimed the CEC could not be held responsible for, and because he refused to remove from the electoral roll before Parliament had created a legal basis those Georgian whom the opposition claimed had been given passports illegally. Essentially, the opposition was worried that Tabagua would allow election fraud in favour of Bzhania. During the height of the passport-row, it demanded his resignation, and four days before the election, a grenade was thrown into the yard of his house (causing damage but no injuries). Now that he is President, Khajimba could try to replace Tabagua by filling (directly and through Parliament) the CEC with allies, but he should refrain from politicising this body. (To Tabagua’s credit, the elections under his supervision have been quite fair.)
  • The trial of the suspects of multiple assassination attempts against Ankvab should continue until a verdict is reached that stands up to scrutiny. In the event that the suspects are acquitted, the investigation should continue. What is worrying in this regard is that one of the main suspects, Almasbei Kchach, who committed suicide when police came to arrest him in 2012, was running mate of current Prime Minister-designate Beslan Butba in the 2009 Presidential election (Kchach and Khajimba have also been members of the same government under President Vladislav Ardzinba).
  • One problem with Beslan Butba’s candidacy for President in 2009 was that he also owned Abkhazia’s only private TV station, Abaza TV. Now that Butba will almost certainly become Prime Minister, this is once more a relevant issue. Even though in the intervening years, internet has become an additional news source for many, Abaza TV must not become a government mouthpiece. (It should be noted that it was Ankvab who finally allowed the extension of the broadcast area of Abaza TV beyond Sukhum to the whole territory of Abkhazia.) Moreover, now that he is President, Khajimba should strengthen the independence and professionalism of the state TV channel, as the opposition has repeatedly demanded during the last couple of years.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Elections, , , , ,

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