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

Abkhazia to no longer have Prime Ministers?

In his annual end-of-year speech to Parliament, President Alexander Ankvab has proposed the abolition of the posts of Prime Minister and (First) Vice Premier. The announcement does not come completely unexpected, as the large number of ‘leading’ positions in the Abkhazian government has been an irritant for a long time. Currently, Abkhazia has a President, a Vice President, a Prime Minister, a First Vice Premier and two Vice Premiers. In the past, there were even moments when Abkhazia had two First Vice Premiers or four Vice Premiers. Of course, Abkhazia is not unique in this. When Vladimir Putin was Prime Minister under President Dmitry Medvedev, Russia had two First Vice Premiers and six additional Vice Premiers. But then Russia is incomparably larger than Abkhazia.

In particular, people have called for the post of Vice Premier to be abolished before. Ankvab took a first small step in this direction by reducing their number from three to two upon his taking office. In contrast, the idea to abolish the post of Prime Minister is new and surprising. Previous suggestions (including by Ankvab himself) had been to abolish the post of Vice President, seen as wholly superfluous. Even if a President dies in office, as happened with Ankvab’s predecessor Sergei Bagapsh, the Vice President is not allowed to take over their term but becomes Acting President while a new President has to be elected within three months. This task could well be carried out by the Prime Minister or the Speaker of Parliament, and this is already likely to happen because if the Vice President wants to participate in the election, they have to in turn transfer Presidential authority while the election is ongoing (during the last election, both Vice President Ankvab and Prime Minister Sergei Shamba participated, so authority passed on to Speaker of Parliament Nugzar Ashuba).

Ankvab now justifies his decision to preserve the position of Vice President by claiming that the Vice President has a popular mandate. However, the validity of this argument is dubious, given that the Vice President is elected on the same ticket as the President and does not, presumably, play a decisive role in the choice of most voters. In addition, the Prime Minister can be given an indirect popular mandate if their position is subject to approval by Parliament — this is the foundation of most (semi-)Parliamentary democracies.

Abkhazia’s combination of both a Vice President and a Prime Minister is surprisingly rare. Within the former Soviet Union and Europe, only Bulgaria also has it. Perhaps the Russian Federation served as inspiration for the drafters of Abkhazia’s constitution, since it had a Vice President until September 1993, although that was not an experience that ended happily and Abkhazia only adopted its constitution in November 1994.

Worldwide, only some 16 countries other than Abkhazia and Bulgaria combine a Vice President and a Prime Minister. Of these, three are communist (China, Vietnam and Laos) and three (former) Ba’athist/Nasserist dictatorships (Egypt, Syria and Iraq), where the proliferation of offices is not really kept in check by their nominal relevance. In two cases, the combination of Vice President and Prime Minister came into being as a result of power-sharing deals after an election crisis (Kenya and Zimbabwe), and in two cases to accommodate the unification of two former countries (Tanzania and Yemen). In two countries (Mauritius, Nepal), the post of Prime Minister was retained and a post of Vice President introduced when the monarchy was abolished. The remaining countries are India, Peru, Uganda and Taiwan.

If Abkhazia now abolishes the position of Prime Minister, it will stand out even further from its neighbours. While it is quite common for American and African countries to have a Vice President but no Prime Minister, in Europe and the former Soviet Union, only Bulgaria has a Vice President and just about every country has a Prime Minister.

It remains to be seen whether and when the change will be implemented. Abkhazian leaders’ adversity to controversial decisions has also meant that the pace of reform has been very slow. The abolition of the post of Prime Minister should require a change in the constitution, which to date has only occurred once, when the term of judges was reduced from lifelong to five years in 1999. However, Ankvab has also called upon Parliament to carry through with another constitutional change already underway, the introduction of a Constitutional Court, and these changes may be bundled. According to the constitution, changes only require a two-thirds majority by Parliament. Nevertheless, the constitutional change of 1999 was subjected to a referendum, and if this will again be the case, it may only happen in 2015, simultaneous with the next Presidential election.

If the post of Prime Minister is really abolished, the question is what becomes of current Prime Minister Leonid Lakerbaia, one of the most senior politicians still active and a long-time ally of Ankvab. Perhaps he will take over as Vice Presidential candidate from Mikhail Logua in the next election, but it is too early for more than speculation on this matter.

Filed under: Abkhazia, ,

One Response

  1. […] is not strange. Ankvab’s representative to the People’s Assembly Dmitri Shamba argues (as was pointed out here before) that the Vice President does not fulfill a clear function and that it is a post which few […]

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