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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, , , , ,

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