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

Who will succeed Sergei Bagapsh?

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.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Elections, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Book review: The Caucasus by Frederik Coene

The Caucasus – An Introduction
Frederik Coene
Routledge, London
October 2009
240 pages
ISBN: 978-0-415-48660-6

“There are two important Meshketian movements, and each has its own view on the nationality issue. Vatan (Homeland) is a pro-Turkish organization, while Khsna is aware of its Georgian conciousness.” (page 160)

“Six months after the rose revolution demonstrations took place in Batumi, and on 6 May 2004, following a second rose revolution, Abashidze was forced to step down and leave for Moscow.” (page 163)

“Until recently the concept of geopolitics has been at the centre of the foreign policy-making of modern states. However, this idea has become outdated and been replaced by the notion of geo-economics, where the emphasis is on the combination of geographical location and economic opportunities.” (page 169, which does not otherwise contain a general exposition on either geopolitics or geo-economics)

Perhaps it is unfair to take a book of 240 pages and highlight three poorly written passages. But then, the publisher explicitly describes it as “clear” and “written throughout in an accessible style”. And all things considered, the unclear, inelegant and even inaccurate passages are one of the most frustrating things about The Caucasus, especially since it is said (again by the publisher) not to require “prior knowledge of the Caucasus”. Individually, they are insignificant, but they add up.

In the very first sentence on the first page of the book it is claimed that the term ‘Caucasian Studies’ should not be confused with the term ‘Caucasiology’ “which deals only with the Caucasian language family”. The International Caucasological Research Institute and the International Caucasology Congress would certainly disagree with that assessment. It is also false in that to the best of modern linguistic knowledge, there is no single Caucasian language family, since despite countless efforts, South and North Caucasian languages have not been shown to be related. This is in fact acknowledged on page 70, in the section devoted to languages. But there instead the author errs on the side of caution when he suggests that the division into North-west, North-east and South Caucasian languages is based more on geography than on linguistics, “as it is often questionable how much they are related to one another”. Indeed, it is uncontroversial that the North-west, North-east and South Caucasian languages form genetic language families. Finally, on page 71 the Caucasian languages are once again presented as constituting one family in a diagram that is labelled an “ethnogenetic tree”. It also lists without comment the Hurrian-Urartian languages as a branch of the North-east Caucasian family, a claim that is far more speculative than the genetic association between Northwest and Northwest Caucasian languages, which is not even mentioned in the text.

On page 165 the author writes that is has “been suggested that Cossacks have assisted the pro-Russian factions in Abkhazia, Transdniestra and the former Yugoslavia”, which is a funny understatement when one considers the fact that Cossack units proudly participate in Abkhazia’s and Transdiestra’s respective annual independence parades. On page 180 it is claimed that after 9/11, Iran has sought to strengthen its ties with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, “in order to counter their support for the global war against terrorism”. And when the author writes on page 185 that before the August 2008 war “all the signs were that Georgia would join [NATO] in 2009” he confuses membership with the conclusion of a membership action plan (MAP).

The Caucasus is presented as filling a lacuna, there not being any introductory book to the region to date. One could argue whether this is really true, but more importantly, The Caucasus doesn’t read much like an introduction. Instead, it is much more a comprehensive reference work which systematically describes the Caucasus in all its facets, and as such it could also present a valuable addition to the existing literature. Unfortunately, its performance is somewhat uneven.

The book is divided into chapters detailing the region’s geography, its administrations, its population and societies, its history, its conflicts, its international politics, its economy and its culture. The most valuable chapters are probably those on geography, population and history.

Happily, the history chapter starts out in the Stone Age and systematically works its way through the ages up to the present day, although at times it devotes more attention to the region’s surrounding empires than the Caucasus itself. Also, the description of the Caucasus’s late- and post-Soviet history and conflicts is not as detailed as one might have whished, but existing literature already covers those adequately.

The population chapter discusses in different sections all the ethnicities that populate the Caucasus, the languages spoken by them and their religions. It ends with two sections on Russian and Soviet nationality policies and on social structure, but these would have been much more useful had they been longer. There is some overlap between the sections, which is perhaps inevitable, although curiously the massive Jewish emigration from the 1970s onwards is only mentioned in the section on religion. The subsection on Islam is especially well-informed, and there are even subsection on Yezidism and Zoroastrianism, although the latter claims that there is still a Zoroastrian temple in existence in Suraxanı near Baku which may in fact rather be a Hindu temple.

Regrettably, as in many descriptions of the Caucasus, the disputed states of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh are a problem for The Caucasus. In his introduction, the author states that he has chosen to follow the UN in not considering them sovereign. This is dubious, since it is not clear that the UN as a body can be said to have a stance on the normative sovereignty of these states, and even if so, whether this should really trump the empirical sovereignty which these states most certainly enjoy in a book which according to the same introduction “tries merely to give the latest factual stance”. But even if one accepts this, it is inexplicable why these states are blind spots for some parts of the book.

The chapter on geography is otherwise very good and detailed, but it misses out on the fact that as many as four of the world’s ten deepest caves are located in Abkhazia, among which the two very deepest. It discusses airports, but omits the airports near Sukhum and Stepanakert, despite the fact that the former has the longest runway of the Caucasus. It discusses seaports, but doesn’t mention Ochamchira in Abkhazia, which is about the only port deep enough to potentially host Russia’s Black Sea fleet, should it ever be forced to move from Sevastopol. Even if these states are eventually integrated into Georgia and Azerbaijan, these caves, airports and seaports will not go away.

Remarkably, in some cases Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh (and also autonomies in the South Caucasus like Adjara and Nakhchevan) receive less attention than the various Russian administrative units. For example, the latter are treated separately in the economy chapter, whereas the former are not, even though their economies function more independently. Inexplicably, the same holds true for the maps throughout the book. In general, the maps are very rudimentary, and present a big missed opportunity given the wealth of geographical data in the running text.

It is clear that a lot of effort has gone into The Caucasus, and indeed the wide variety of topics it dwells upon must have demanded extensive research. But, regrettably, the end-result is nevertheless uneven, and there are too many places where it feels half-finished. A thoroughly updated second edition could turn this into a truly valuable reference work.

Filed under: Book reviews, Wider Region, ,

Genocides and politics in the Caucasus – part 2

After previous deliberations, Georgia’s parliament has now on 20 May formally recognised the Circassian Genocide which took place towards the end of the Russian Empire’s conquest of the region, culminating in 1864.

In itself, it is a good thing that these events have been recognised for what they are. However, this is somewhat overshadowed by the fact that this was so obviously a political decision. Apart from the fact that it is clearly a result of Georgia’s current anger with Russia, if Georgia really aspires to the moral leadership of the Caucasus, it should also recognise the Armenian genocide, something Armenian groups have requested on several occasions. Moreover, as Thomas de Waal rightly points out, it is striking that Georgia has only recognised as genocide the Tsarist murder of Circassians, and not the very similar murder of Abkhaz in 1867 and 1877.

For this, two reasons suggest themselves. First, the territory left empty was populated by Russians and Armenians, but the events also marked the start of several waves of Georgian colonisation (both forced and voluntary). Second, in its declaration, the Georgian parliament has also decreed that deported Circassians should be recognised as refugees. If it would also recognise deported Abkhaz as refugees, it would be hard to disagree with Abkhazian efforts to bring about the return of its diaspora. It would also undermine Georgia’s claim that Abkhazia’s independence project is rejected by a majority of the people who have a right to live there.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Armenia, Circassians, Georgia, Russia, , ,

Taklama now also on Twitter

I have joined twitter, at http://twitter.com/#!/sephiakarta . New tweets will be displayed on this weblog as well, in the rightmost column.

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