Tornike Zurabashvili is a former editor of Civil.ge and a fellow at the Eurasia Democratic Security Network (EDSN).
The past few months have been eventful in Abkhazia, a region of about 200,000 inhabitants located on the north-western edge of Georgia, and controlled – militarily, politically and economically – by the Russian Federation.
The long sequence of events started in September, when Raul Khajimba, the region’s erstwhile leader claimed a disputed victory in the ‘presidential elections’ of August 2019, and ended in mid-January, when a group of opposition supporters, following lengthy legal battles and street protests, stormed into Khajimba’s administration, pushing the Kremlin to dispatch its key Abkhazia point-men, Vladislav Surkov (since ejected from the Kremlin) and Rashid Nurgaliyev, to Sokhumi, the regional capital, and to send their once-trusted henchman into resignation.
The dust seemed to have finally settled in coming weeks; the power was formally delegated to Khajimba’s head of government, Valery Bganba, and the local election administration announced the date of repeat polls – March 22. Three candidates entered the ‘presidential’ race and started active campaigning across the region, but mysterious (re-)hospitalization of the opposition leader and a clear frontrunner, Aslan Bzhania, added an unexpected twist to the course of events, reigniting the political frictions.
Much of the Abkhaz politics is written and directed in the hallways of the Kremlin and will remain so, regardless of the outcome of elections. But the recent developments still tell a story that beg a closer look, not least because it sheds light on how Russia runs affairs in areas under its occupation.
Role of ‘Abkhaz’ presidency
According to the Abkhaz constitution, ‘presidents’ lead the executive branch, guide foreign and domestic policy, and appoint and dismiss the cabinet of ministers. In contrast, the decision-making power of the People’s Assembly, the regional legislature, is only minimal. In the political science vernacular, this would mean the region has as a highly presidentialized system. But reading these constitutional verses literally would be a mistake, particularly after the August 2008 war, when Moscow rolled its tanks deep into Georgia, and formalized its long-existent politico-military presence in the regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali.
Instead, the generous constitutional endowment should be seen an upshot and an inertia of the 1990s and early 2000s, when Moscow, under the guise of the conflict mediator, balked at directly intervening in the daily routines of Sokhumi and Tskhinvali politics, and allowed certain degree of self-rule to local administrations. Since 2008, however, Russia has set its foot firmly in the two regions, tightening control over political, economic and security affairs. As a result, Abkhaz ‘presidency’ (and for that matter, the whole of Abkhaz polity) was effectively reduced to the role of a governor-elect, reminiscent of the “heads of republics” in the North Caucasus.
Nevertheless, ‘presidential elections’ in Abkhazia have remained highly competitive even after the August war, both in terms of the number of candidates wishing to run for the office and the degree of popular participation in the electoral processes. The reasons for such enthusiasm vary; while some in the Abkhaz society view the ‘presidency’ as a symbol of their desired statehood, and hence, the elections – as a way to solidify their sovereignty, others – clans of various types – regard the elections as a way to dominate over Abkhazia’s poor, but resource-rich economy.
History of ‘presidential’ elections
The history of ‘presidential elections’ in the region goes back to the 1994, when Vladislav Ardzinba, the leader of Abkhaz nationalists in the armed conflict of 1992-1993, was elected as ‘president’ by the remaining ‘half’ of the Supreme Council of Abkhazia (the Georgian deputies were expelled from the region as a result of the conflict). The subsequent elections in 1999 were held by popular vote, with Ardzinba running unopposed and garnering nearly all votes in favor. Since then, Abkhazia had three ‘presidents’ and held five cycles of elections, but none of the leaders were replaced through elections.
Ardzinba’s successor, Sergey Bagapsh died in 2011, three years short of completing his second term in office. Bagapsh was replaced by his close associate, Alexander Ankvab, but he was ousted in May 2014, after opposition supporters stormed into the ‘presidential’ administration in Sokhumi, in what seemed to be a Kremlin-sanctioned move to replace the unwanted leader. The history was only to be repeated two months ago, when Raul Khajimba, one of the key figures in the 2014 events, was forced into resignation following violent takeover of the ‘presidential’ administration.
Roots of the crisis
The ongoing political crisis traces back to 2014 and more remotely – to the events of 2004, when Sergey Bagapsh, an opposition candidate, gained an unexpected victory against Raul Khajimba, the right hand man of Vladislav Ardzinba and a clear Moscow favorite in the elections. Back then, Khajimba challenged the election results, triggering a months-long political crisis. The standoff was only resolved with a Moscow-mediated arrangement. Bagapsh and Khajimba were compelled to share power, with Khajimba becoming the region’s ‘vice-president’ after repeat elections.
The coalition did not last long: Khajimba left the post in 2009, and decided to take an independent course in politics, but ran unsuccessfully in the December 2009 and the August 2011 elections, losing against Bagapsh and Ankvab, respectively. His attempts to win the hearts of the Abkhaz voters materialized only in August 2014, in the snap elections that followed the ousting of Alexander Ankvab. This time around, Khajimba won the ballot with 50.57% of votes.
Khajimba’s main rival in the elections was Aslan Bzhania, chief of the Abkhaz security service from 2010 to 2014, under Sergey Bagapsh and Alexander Ankvab. He obtained 36% of votes in the election. Despite his defeat, Bzhania remained politically active in subsequent years; he went on to establish the Apra foundation in 2015 and was elected in the region’s legislature in 2017, emerging as an uncontested leader of the opposition by early 2019. The 56-year-old built his political capital by fiercely criticizing Khajimba’s poor policy responses to economic problems, rising corruption, inefficient governance and increasing crime rates. He also spearheaded calls for Khajimba’s resignation, all the way from 2016 to 2019.
‘Presidential’ election: take one
Abkhaz opposition reached the election year with a high degree of optimism. The ‘presidential’ polls, initially slated for July 21, was promising Aslan Bzhania a definite victory, but in mid-April the leadership hopeful was suddenly hospitalized with signs of breathing difficulties and speech impairment. Initially, the opposition announced there was no reason to doubt the official diagnosis of a Moscow hospital that the man suffered from viral pneumonia. However, it later emerged that the opposition leader, together with his two bodyguards, might have been poisoned with heavy metals, based on an examination carried out at a Munich-based lab. The announcement prompted the opposition supporters to take to the streets, and the authorities to postpone the date of elections to August 25.
Bzhania was still unable to fully recover for the race, and eventually, decided to endorse the candidacy of Alkhaz Kvitsinia, leader of the Amtsakhara party and his close political ally. Kvitsinia ran an active campaign, and managed to bring the contest into the second round. Here, he failed to win garnering 46.19% of votes, against Raul Khajimba’s 47.38%. The election administration declared Khajimba the winner, but Kvitsinia appealed against the decision, claiming that it went against the electoral regulations, which stipulates that the victor has to receive more than the combined votes of the runner-up and those cast “against all.” Kvitsinia lost the case in the initial trial at the ‘supreme court,’ but took the decision to the appeals chamber.
On January 9, a day before the court would convene for its final hearing, several hundred opposition activists, led by Akhra Avidzba, an ethnic Abkhaz military commander of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic,’ broke into the ‘presidential’ administration, calling for Khajimba’s resignation.
To settle the stalemate, Moscow sent Rashid Nurgaliyev, Deputy Secretary of the Russian Security Council, to the region. The Kremlin envoy traveled to Abkhazia on January 10, and few hours from his arrival, the appeals chamber declared the outcome of the ‘presidential’ runoff invalid. Initially, Khajimba criticized the decision and refused to step down, but when another crisis-manager, Presidential aide Vladislav Surkov arrived to Sokhumi on January 12, the incumbent filed for resignation and announced that he would not run for repeat polls.
‘Presidential’ election: take two
The snap ‘presidential’ election will be held on March 22, 2020. Voters will have three choices: Aslan Bzhania (56), a candidate supported by the Amtsakhara, the United Abkhazia and the Aitaira parties; Adgur Ardzinba (38), the incumbent ‘economy minister’ and the handpick of team Khajimba; and Leonid Dzapshba (60), leader of the fringe Akzaara party and a former ‘interior minister.’
In the initial weeks of the campaign, the odds were clearly favorable for Bzhania. The candidate secured the endorsement of three main opposition parties, and joined forces with Alexander Ankvab, a former ‘president’ and a heavy-weight in local politics, but Bzhania’s mysterious re-hospitalization on March 2 on his way home from Moscow, less than three weeks before elections, cast doubts on the likelihood of his victory in the upcoming polls.
Furious about the media reports that their leader could have been poisoned, Bzhania’s supporters took to the streets again, taking over the ‘presidential’ administration and demanding resignation of the acting ‘president.’ But when Russian ‘ambassador’ to Sokhumi, Alexey Dvinyanin, warned against “extremists from various political circles” wanting to undermine the Abkhaz-Russian “strategic partnership,” the opposition toned down their rhetoric and recalled the protests.
As previously, the Russian hospital, where the candidate was being treated, said there was no evidence of poisoning, claiming this was a mere pneumonia. The candidate himself, in an interview on March 13, given shortly after being discharged from hospital, reiterated the pneumonia version, but noted that he remains intent on determining whether or not there were “external causes” for his sickness.
Bzhania is now back in the race; he returned to Sokhumi on March 14 and resumed campaigning, but the victory will no longer be easy for him. A week before the election day, the opposing camp seems to have finally overcome the crisis of the initial days after Khajimba’s resignation and has successfully mobilized its financial and administrative resources around the candidacy of Adgur Ardzinba.
The nomination of Ardzinba, a relatively low-key political figure in the cabinet of Raul Khajimba, was a surprise to many in the region, including in his own camp, but the candidate has ran a vibrant campaign, positioning himself as an untarnished politician, free of scandals and intrigues typical to the Abkhaz politics. Ardzinba has been running on to the unity ticket and has promised to crack down on crime and corruption, as well as to offer quick and less bureaucratic solutions to Abkhazia’s economic problems. He also gained the approval of Abkhaz hardliners by taking a harsh stance against the possibility of dialogue with Tbilisi, something Bzhania has been more willing and open to.
The Russian preferences
In the initial iteration of elections, the Kremlin had a clear favorite, and it was Raul Khajimba. In an obvious sign of endorsement, Vladimir Putin met the Abkhaz leader on August 6, 2019 less three weeks before the first round of elections, while his Defense Minister, Sergey Shoigu signed a deal on funding the modernization of Abkhaz army just two days before the August 25 polls. Putin was also quick to congratulate Khajimba on victory, effectively disregarding the opposition’s concerns.
This time around, however, the Russians have not been blunt about where their preferences lie. Whether this is due to the Kremlin’s ongoing internal reshuffles or an attempt not to appear on the losing side, the Russians seem to have refrained from intervening in the elections, at least publicly and at least for now. But one thing is definitely clear; the Kremlin will be much more comfortable having Adgur Ardzinba at the helms of the Abkhaz polity, than a more experienced Aslan Bzhania.
Although Bzhania, like much of the Abkhaz political spectrum, has also been openly enthusiastic of closer ties with the Russian Federation, and has even earned the Order of Friendship from Vladimir Putin for assistance in providing security during the 2014 Sochi Olympics, his close links with ‘presidents’ Sergey Bagapsh and Alexander Ankvab, whom Russians have always distasted for their quest of autonomous governance, have made him somewhat of an unwanted figure for the Kremlin.
It is yet too early to draw absolute conclusions about the upcoming elections, but three takeaways can still be gleaned from recent developments.
The ‘presidential’ election demonstrated that Abkhaz-Russian relations are clearly hierarchical, with Russia setting the pace and pulling the strings in the region. Yet, local political elites maintain a certain degree of autonomy from their patrons and their preferences might not always be in line with that of Moscow. Whether or not this cohabitation will last long remains to be seen, but the status quo will certainly not be upset this time.
The election also highlighted that Abkhaz politics may be vibrant, but it is also very narrow and very ethnic-based. Politics in Abkhazia remains a man’s chore, and the men in politics have to be necessarily ethnic Abkhaz. This means around 2/3 of Abkhazia’s population, Georgians, Armenians and Russians alike, are effectively distanced from the decision-making, with many Georgians also effectively disenfranchised by Sokhumi’s passportisation politics. Bzhania’s election might improve the picture in this regard, particularly when it comes to the Georgians of Gali, who have suffered the most from Khajimba’s policies of exclusion.
The election also underlined that Abkhaz politics is fundamentally a dangerous affair. Allegations of candidate poisoning, routine takeovers of the ‘presidential’ administration and the increasing role of the clans and the criminal underworld in politics (as demonstrated by Akhra Avidzba), show that the region might face new waves of instability in the future, with range of underwater currents and illicit influences that are not necessarily transparent to outside observers.
Regardless of how the election will unfold, one thing will definitely hold: the new leader will have to operate in a deeply polarized society, divided along the lines of clan, family and personal loyalties, making it difficult (if not impossible) to deliver on many of the electoral promises that were raised so generously during the election campaign.