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

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, ,

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, , ,

The meandering political career of Sergei Shamba

The politics of Abkhazia revolve around individual politicians and temporary alliances, and less around political parties and ideological current. The run-up to the recent Presidential election in Abkhazia added another chapter to the already very interesting post-Soviet political career of Sergei Shamba.

Sergei Shamba first became Foreign Minister in May 1997, under former President Vladislav Ardzinba. In May 2004 he was among the group of (former) government members who founded the opposition party United Abkhazia, and he subsequently resigned from his position as minister. According to an interview Shamba gave at the time, the original plan was for him and Sergei Bagapsh to be United Abkhazia’s Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates for the election of 3 October 2004. But United Abkhazia entered into an electoral alliance with Amtsakhara, and the combination nominated Bagapsh and Amtsakhara’s Stanislav Lakoba.

Shamba then participated in the election independently, coming in third place, behind Bagapsh and Prime Minister Raul Khajimba, who had the outgoing government’s support. During the post-election stand off between Bagapsh and Khajimba, Shamba presented himself as the  third-way candidate, founding his own Social-Democratic Party and at one point even calling upon both candidates to withdraw in favour of someone unaffiliated, presumably himself. In the end Bagapsh and Khajimba agreed to share power and to run as one team in a new election to be held on 12 January 2005.

This seemed to spell the end of Shamba’s ambitions, even though Ardzinba had again appointed him as Foreign Minister on 15 December. Bagapsh did not want to keep Shamba in his post, preferring Natella Aqaba, head of the NGO Association of Women of Abkhazia. But under the power sharing accord, appointing the foreign Minister was Khajimba’s prerogative, and Khajimba was already angry that his preferences had been ignored for some of the other cabinet positions. In the end Bagapsh submitted to the pressure from both American and Russian officials who were content to deal with Shamba in the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict negotiations.

Given the above history, it would have seemed that Shamba was now a political ally of Khajimba. Indeed, Shamba’s Social-Democratic Party stayed in opposition, even officially joining the Forum for the National Unity of Abkhazia, bundling those forces which had supported Khajimba in the election. However, during the following five years Shamba again shifted position. Much of the opposition criticism in the run-up to the 12 December 2009 Presidential election regarded the government’s foreign policy. Shamba clearly dismissed this criticism and he stayed on when Khajimba resigned on 28 May.

Shamba’s long tenure as foreign minister both under Ardzinba and Bagapsh has made him the politician with the most government experience in Abkhazia. There was some speculation that he might have another go at the presidency in this election. Instead, Shamba seems to have kept totally silent throughout the entire election period, thus tacidly supporting Bagapsh. The two will probably have agreed on this beforehand in return for Shamba being allowed to stay on as Foreign Minister. Bagapsh might then support Shamba in the next presidential election, Bagapsh himself being constitutionally barred from a third term.

As an interesting footnote to this story, Shamba seems to have parted ways with his Social-Democratic Party, even though at the time of its founding he seemed to be its principal sponsor. In the end, the Forum for the National Unity of Abkhazia did not subsume the various movements it intended to unite, instead becoming a seperate political party. Still, the Social-Democratic Party has consistently joined the Forum in its government criticism. Its principal figure now seems to its chairman Gennadi Alamia, who during the Soviet period was a poet and an activist for Abkhazian separation from Georgia and who served as chief of staff of the army after independence.

Filed under: Abkhazia, , , , , ,

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