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

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, , , , ,

2014 Abkhazia Presidential election guide

I have created an overview of the upcoming Presidential election in Abkhazia. Not here, but at Wikipedia, where it can be continuously updated and where others can contribute as well.

Of the candidates that were originally nominated, outgoing Vice Premier Beslan Eshba failed to pass the Abkhaz language test. The four remaining candidates are opposition leaders Raul Khajimba and Leonid Dzapshba, outgoing Head of the State Security Service Aslan Bzhania and outgoing Defence Minister Mirab Kishmaria. Most radically opposed are Khajimba, who lead the protests that brought down President Alexander Ankvab, and Bzhania, who represents the old government and who has called the storming of the Presidential Administration criminal. In light of the diverging opinions regarding Ankvab’s ouster, this may very well become the first Abkhazian Presidential election to require a run-off.

It will be interesting to see to what extent Kishmaria will manage to assume the role of an apolitical candidate representing moderation. At campaign meetings he has stressed ethnic harmony, while as one of Abkhazia’s foremost war-time commanders his patriotic credentials are beyond doubt. Should Kishmaria reach a run-off, this position could hand him a surprising victory.

Dzapshba seems to be the weakest candidate of the four. While Khajimba played a leading role in the protests against Ankvab and has managed to secure most of the opposition’s support, Dzapshba has decided to go it alone. He is also hampered by the fact that while one of the opposition’s major complaints is government corruption, Dzapshba is one of the very few officials of the Bagapsh-Ankvab era to have been dismissed and prosecuted for corruption, even if the process never reached a verdict and may have been politically motivated to begin with. Tellingly, Dzapshba participated in the by-election to Parliament following Eshba’s appointment as Vice Premier, but only managed to finish third. His goal now may be to score a decent percentage and to trade his support in an eventual run-off for an influential position.

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

Ankvab accepts resignation — what next?

One week ago, Alexander Ankvab was still President of Abkhazia, and while the opposition had announced protests for the 27th, nothing indicated his days in office were numbered. But the protests triggered a national crisis, and a mere five days later, Ankvab’s position had become so weak that he was left with no other choice but to resign, followed a day later by Prime Minister Leonid Lakerbaia.

In retrospect, it is possible to identify two crucial events that led to this outcome. When protesters stormed the Presidential Administration on the 27th, Ankvab fled to the Russian military base in Gudauta. This was a visible sign of weakness. It allowed the opposition to claim Ankvab had deserted his post, and it prevented him from addressing the population and from directing his government. Secondly, the opposition secured the support of Parliament, which gave it a crucial degree of legitimacy.

In a certain light, what happened in these five days is quite amazing. When was the last time a President was overthrown by a popular uprising so swiftly, and without a drop of blood being spilled?

On closer inspection, not all is well. It certainly was a tactical mistake of Ankvab to flee to Gudauta, but Ankvab more than others has reason to worry about his safety, having survived no less than six assassination attempts. So when government representatives say they had concrete information about a plan to murder Ankvab when the Presidential Administration was stormed, and later again when he intended to return to Sukhum, this is credible, providing some justification for Ankvab’s behaviour and casting a shadow over the peaceful nature of the protests.

The role of Parliament is also somewhat questionable. It had the right to pass a motion of no-confidence in the Prime Minister Lakerbaia and to call upon Ankvab to resign. But it overstepped its authority when, after Ankvab refused to agree to this, it proceeded to appoint its Speaker Valeri Bganba as acting President. Originally, only 19 of Parliament’s 35 members met. The opposition then apparently managed to win over some pro-government MPs to its side, raising the number to 24, enough for a constitutional majority. But the constitution requires that in case of impeachment, a claim that the President has failed to fulfill his duties is confirmed by the Constitutional Court, which it was not.

Finally, it is far from clear whether Ankvab’s resignation is right. His government did not use force against protesters, and the opposition does not seem to have accused Ankvab personally of corruption. That charge may hold water against other government members, but most opposition leaders have previously held office in governments that were likewise corrupt and incompetent. Perhaps most importantly, Ankvab was elected with a comfortable majority, defeating the current opposition leaders, and it is not evident that the country as a whole supports his immediate resignation.

The election has been set for 24 August, and it promises to be very competitive, as there will be no government candidate who may be seen by voters as the ‘default’ choice. Nevertheless, there is a risk that it will simply be a re-run of the 2011 election.

The opposition consists of a broad range of politicians, and it may not present a single candidate. Riding on the success of these protests, Raul Khajimba will certainly not want to miss his best chance of becoming President since 2004, even if for the moment he is careful to explain that he will first have to consult with his supporters. But this is also a golden opportunity for Sergei Shamba. When in 2011, as outgoing Prime Minister, he came second, it seemed to have been his last attempt, as he would have been over the constitutionally mandated maximum age of 65 at the time of the next election. After his defeat, he announced his retirement from politics, but in practice he has joined the opposition and has now been handed one more chance. He may try to present himself as a compromise candidate. But for the same reason that he is the ‘safe’ choice, Shamba in particular is not likely to fight hard against corruption, or to strongly defend Abkhazia’s interests vis-à-vis Russia.

A very important question is to what extent Russia played an active role in this revolution, with the purpose of bringing into power people who would then give in to Russia’s demands where Ankvab would not. While this cannot be answered with certainty except through direct testimony, the opposition must be judged by its actions if it comes to power.

On the government’s side, the fact that Ankvab did not use force against protesters and his relatively graceful resignation mean that he still has the opportunity to seek vindication at the polls. He should resist that temptation, acknowledge that Abkhazians do have a lot of cause for dissatisfaction and throw his weight behind a younger candidate, although it remains to be seen who that might be.

Abkhazia now has an opportunity to renew itself if it elects into government a set of young reformers. But it could just as well fall back and return to power the strongmen of yesterday.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Elections, , ,

Some thoughts on the crisis in Abkhazia

On the 27th, opposition protesters led by Raul Khajimba rallied in the centre of Sukhum, demanding major government change. After several rounds of unsuccessful talks with government representatives, protesters stormed the Presidential Administration, causing President Alexander Ankvab to flee to Gudauta. Since then, Vladimir Putin’s aide Vladislav Surkov has flown in from Russia to help find a way out of the resulting stand-off. In the most recent development, Parliament tonight passed a motion of no-confidence in Prime Minister Leonid Lakerbaia and called upon President Ankvab to resign.

  • Besides decrying government corruption and inaptitude, the opposition has two major grievances: that the government has failed to use massive amounts of Russian aid to develop Abkhazia’s economy, leaving it in a very dependent position, and that it has been issuing passports to Georgians much too liberally, undermining Abkhazian statehood.
  • This is the biggest political crisis in Abkhazia since the Tangerine Revolution in 2004. At the time, Khajimba was the outgoing Prime Minister and first President Vladislav Ardzinba’s anointed successor, but he lost to opposition leader Sergei Bagapsh, which after months of protests he was forced to concede. Ankvab’s support played a crucial role in Bagapsh’s victory and he succeeded him after his death in 2011.
  • Already during Ardzinba’s Presidency, there were large-scale protests, which played a role in his high government turn-over, and even calls for Ardzinba’s impeachment. That is to say, the current government is not necessarily excessively unpopular. But that the Presidential Administration was now stormed so relatively frivolously indicates the lack of respect enjoyed by Ankvab personally, who has always been a divisive figure.
  • The taking of the Presidential Administration echoes its occupation by supporters of Bagapsh (and Ankvab) during the 2004 Tangerine Revolution.
  • In 2004, Khajimba disputed Bagapsh’s victory on the grounds that votes cast by Georgian residents of the eastern districts were invalid as these were not Abkhazian citizens. While this was clearly a very opportunistic claim (as his own government had organised the election), the point had some merit, and holding an Abkhazian passport has since become a precondition for voting. The current Khajimba-led opposition now claims that the government has been issuing passports to Georgians to once again extent its voter base. It has demanded the firing of the officials responsible, including the governors of the eastern districts.
  • It was initially reported that Ankvab had agreed to dismiss the government, and later also the Prosecutor-General and two district governors. Ankvab has now denied this. Likely he is prepared to concede this point, and Prime Minister Leonid Lakerbaia has expressed his willingness to resign to alleviate the crisis. But the opposition now demands Ankvab’s own resignation.
  • The protest has prompted government supporters to rally in turn. It appears the opposition supporters are more numerous.
  • It is unclear what policy vis-à-vis Russia the opposition would pursue. While it decries the fact that the government’s policy has left Abkhazia so dependent on Russia, given that Khajimba enjoyed Russia’s support during the 2004 Tangerine Revolution, closer integration with Russia cannot be excluded. Moreover, the opposition consists of many different groups, and much depends on who would actually obtain power.
  • Since 2008, Abkhazia’s entry into the Russian Federation had been off the table. Russia’s annexation of Crimea means that from Russia’s perspective, this is no longer impossible. The greatest existential danger for Abkhazia is that the current crisis could enable Russia to force through this option. However, this is probably not what Russia wants, since it has no real reason to be unhappy with the current arrangement, and such a move would destroy its attempts to mend relations with Georgia (on its own terms) and further antagonise other countries.
  • The government includes a number of fresh faces whose appointment was welcomed at the time. The opposition has acknowledged this by proposing that one-third of its government would consist of incumbents who are performing well, as its goal is a government for the good of Abkhazia, not purely to bring the opposition into power.
  • Opposition protesters have also entered the offices of Abkhazia’s national broadcaster, whose employees now complain that they cannot report objectively in such circumstances. Intriguingly, Ankvab gave an interview to Abaza TV, owned by Beslan Butba, one of the opposition leaders.
  • So far, the crisis has been relatively peaceful (the government has not used force against protesters), in keeping with Abkhazia’s political culture.

Filed under: Abkhazia, ,

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