2020 kicked off with major shake-up in Abkhazia, Georgia’s westernmost Russian-occupied region. On January 9, throngs of opposition supporters broke into “presidential administration” office in Sokhumi, demanding immediate resignation of Moscow-backed leader Raul Khajimba. Amid two days of fierce protests Abkhazia’s “top court” declared results of September 2018 “presidential elections” void. In order to avoid a flare-up, the “parliament” called on Abkhaz “president” to stand down. On January 12, Sunday afternoon, Abkhazia’s “election administration” announced decision to hold snap “presidential polls” on March 22.
Khajimba refused to resign, vowed to appeal the “court” decision and invited his opponents to the negotiating table. Meanwhile, Russian security official Rashid Nurgaliyev intervened to break Abkhazia deadlock. Nurgaliyev, Deputy Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, arrived in the occupied region on Friday, January 10. It was only after the arrival of Vladislav Surkov, Russian President’s aide in Sokhumi on Sunday evening, however, that Khajimba announced resignation. The resignation came as protesters started moving from occupied “presidential headquarters” towards Khajimba’s “residence.” Later, Valery Bganba was appointed as the acting “president” of Abkhazia.
As the dust begins to settle, hefty questions take the stage. Did we witness just another bloodless “coup”, a rule rather than an exception in Abkhazia’s “presidential” history? Who were the movers and shakers acting behind the scenes while the muscular power-grabbing was running on? And, importantly, will the “regime change” bring about a thaw in Georgian-Abkhaz relations?
Civil Georgia asked two experts to talk us through the undercurrents of the recent development.
Mob Led by Thug
“[January] events in Abkhazia come at a time of long-simmering tensions. Nearly half of 2019 was spent in scandals around the electoral campaign, which radicalized opposition previously calling for change of power through peaceful means”, comments Olesya Vartanyan, a long-time observer at the International Crisis Group (ICG), a reputed conflict think-tank.
She points to one peculiarity of these protests – “it is interesting that no prominent opposition politician was present during the seizure of the building. The mob took advantage of the fact that government building was poorly guarded during the holidays. The leadership was late to call for deployment of the local riot troops.”
Vartanyan evokes a missing piece in the chain of events preceding the protests. “Days before the storming, Khajimba’s bodyguard was detained for involvement in a homicide. Many neglected the fact that crowd mainly consisted of relatives of those killed during the shootout.” She refers to a bloody altercation which took place on November 22 in Sukhumi and ended with a murder of two criminal bigwigs. It was Akhra Avidzba, cousin of a deceased thief-in-law, who masterminded the “palace” siege. “He made his name during the 2014-2015 war in Donbass,” adds Vartanyan, “then he made an attempt to get into the Abkhaz Politics by campaigning for a parliamentary seat two years ago. Local politicians kept a distance from Avidzba, who was never seen as one-of-us. Now this may change.”
Nino Kalandarishvili of the Institute for the Study of Nationalism and Conflicts, a Georgian think-tank, is unsure about Avidzba’s bid for power. “To tell the truth, Russia does not care who personally presides over the region in Abkhazia, provided that the situation is relatively stable, and that the authorities pledge allegiance to Russia. Khajimba failed to uphold stability. Subsequently, Moscow will bet on Bzhania [an opposition leader] and not Avidzba, so called “gangster”, to end this disarray. “
Russia’s Palpable Hand
As the escalation mounted, Russia was prompt to intervene, at a high level. Rashid Nurgaliyev, deputy secretary of Russia’s National Security Council, arrived in Sokhumi, followed by Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s point man and fixer on Russian-occupied Georgian regions. Vartanyan argues, that Surkov has been seen by many in Abkhazia as someone, who brought Raul Khajimba to power, and therefore responsible for his mistakes. “Surkov went to Sukhumi only the very last day of the crisis. By the time of his arrival, all left to Surkov was to tell Khajimba that he should cease resistance and resign” she explains.
But Kalandarishvili reckons that Surkov’s clout in inner Abkhazian circles has not diminished. “If Moscow had been pulling the strings of this “coup”, then dispatching Nurgaliyev would have proved sufficient to fix the mess. But it took Surkov’s personal intervention for Khajimba to step down,” she argues.
You Reap What You Sow
Khajimba first became Abkhaz leader in August 2014, after three unsuccessful attempts to win “presidency” since late 2004. His tenure was marked by even closer integration with Russia and a heavy-handed handling of ethnic Georgian residents. “Khajimba’s considerable “feat” was to sign a treaty on ‘Alliance and Strategic partnership’ with Russia”, Kalandarishvili explains, “which deepened region’s financial and military dependence on its main benefactor. This has sparked anger among Abkhazia’s “nationalist” factions, preoccupied with Russia’s increased say in Abkhazia’s domestic affairs.”
Another ill-famed chapter in Khajimba’s political biography, according to Kalandarishvili, was his appointing of Temur Nadaraia to govern Gali district, Abkhazia’s easternmost area mainly settled by ethnic Georgians. Nadaraia, to his own right, embarked on “grinding down ethnic Georgians by oppression: stripping voting and property rights, stepping up fiscal burden and, overall, imposing apartheid-like regime.”
Vartanyan shares the assessment that Georgians experienced hardship during Khajimba’s rule. “The most critical issue is still crossing of the ABL [the administrative boundary line] for local Georgians. Khajimba closed many of the crossing points and introduced more restrictions for those who need to commute. This must be resolved.”
The Fate of Gali – Entire Municipality Held Hostage
According to the statistical data collected by Sokhumi, as of January 1, 2018, 30,259 people reside in Gali, 98 % of whom are ethnic Georgians. Last November [now former] district “chief” Nadaraia made public Russia-backed Sokhumi’s plans to “integrate population [of Gali district] into Abkhaz ethno-cultural and political space.” He took a dim view of Tbilisi’s designs to “lure” Gali dwellers with “treats” like free education. Nadaraia warned residents that whoever leaves Abkhazia for more than six months, may have their residence permits revoked. Nadaraia, who was replaced as district head in December, has also spearheaded an effort to squeeze Georgian language out of district’s schools, in order to limit ethnic Georgian students’ access to Georgian universities.
Vartanyan expressed mild optimism about how the impending regime change bodes for the occupied district. “Bzhania [most probable candidate to be elected] and his people were careful in their criticism of the policy on Georgians. They admitted it had to change but did not propose concrete solutions.”
Thus far, Tbilisi remains terse in its assessment of Abkhazia developments. Minister Ketevan Tsikhelashvili, who oversees occupied regions, stated on Saturday that the Sokhumi events demonstrate existing situation in Abkhazia and unresolved conflict in the region does not meet the demands and interests of the Abkhazian society. Later she reacted to Bzhania’s statement on “building trust” in bilateral relations, noting that dialogue is “necessary” and Tbilisi endorses fostering ties between both sides of the line of occupation.