The death of de facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh in late-May has caught local political elite off guard and thrust Abkhazia into an unexpected election campaign. Early presidential elections in the self-declared republic must be held within the next three months.
“It is an alarming situation for the authority. The bureaucracy cannot decide who the best candidate is and whom it should rely on. Some confusion is observed, which may lead to anxiety and tensions,” Inal Khashig, editor-in-chief of Chegemskaya Pravda, told Tabula.
The pre-election fight is expected to be tense. Several candidates have already been identified. One of those candidates is Alexander Ankvab, Vice-President and now acting President of the occupying regime. Ankvab has the reputation of a “Gray Cardinal” with many enemies inside Abkhazia. He has survived no fewer than five assassination attempts over the past few years. Under the Soviet Union, Ankvab served as Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs of Georgia. Later, during the Abkhaz conflict, he headed the Abkhaz Interior Ministry. After the Abkhaz-Georgian war, he engaged in business in Russia. Ankvab tossed his hat into the ring in the 2004 campaign for the de facto presidency, but he subsequently dropped out of the race and threw his support behind Bagapsh.
Ankvab’s main rival now is Sergei Shamba, Prime Minister of the Sukhumi regime. Before assuming his current position, Shamba served for years as head of the de facto Abkhaz Foreign Ministry. Shamba is regarded as a less confrontational politician than Ankvab. Shamba enjoys close links with the Russian foreign office and the administrations of the Russian President and Prime Minister, as well as with representatives of Western mediation missions.
Former de facto Prime Minister Raul Khajimba also is expected to enter the race. He represents the interests of a large number of Abkhaz-Georgian war veterans and those close to former de facto Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba. An outspoken critic of Bagapsh in recent times, Khajimba accused the late de facto president of yielding excessively to Russia while at the same time himself remaining loyal to Moscow.
Inal Khashig considers Ankvab and Shamba as frontrunners in the race to replace Bagapsh. “But much depends on the opposition led by Khajimba, on its capacity to consolidate and its flexibility,” the Abkhaz journalist opines. “There is also a possibility that Ankvab and Shamba will team up. This tandem has a great possibility to win. However, it is too premature to speak about the formation of such tandem.”
Sergei Bagapsh came to power in 2004 after defeating rival and Kremlin favorite Raul Khajimba. In 2009, Bagapsh handily won re-election largely owing to euphoria caused by Russia’s recognition of the independence of Abkhazia. He subsequently showed himself to be an obedient implementer of Moscow’s instructions, engendering dissatisfaction among Abkhaz society.
Bagapsh caused considerable uproar by sanctioning agreements between Sukhumi and Moscow for the privatization of the Abkhaz railway and oil extraction in Abkahzia. Similarly unpopular were his decisions to immunize Russian servicemen from requirements of local law and to relinquish former Soviet government summer cottages to Russia.
Bagapsh frequently reacted aggressively to the criticism of his opponents. In one interview, he scolded his critics, “You want Russian passports and pensions, financial aid, military base and security and at the same time do not want to give anything in return. It will not work this way.”
Perhaps the loudest public outcry heard during Bagapsh’s de facto presidency was in response to Russia’s claims on a 160-square-kilometer territory in Gagra district under the process of “border demarcation.” The opposition openly threatened to dislodge Bagapsh if he conceded to Russia on this issue. As a result of negotiations, Russia temporarily tabled its claim.
The Bagapsh government was also rebuked for corruption. According to local media, abundant Russian financial aid was used mainly for the welfare of high public officials. The Accounts Chamber of the Russian Federation uncovered untargeted spending of 11 million USD at the end of last year.
Inal Khashig notes that the next leader of the self-declared republic “must change cardinally” in order to tackle “new challenges.” At the top of that agenda is finding workable solutions for problems that have accumulated in the relationship with Russia.
In Inal Khashig’s opinion, the Bagapsh administration “facilitated stabilization of the situation in Abkhazia.” However, “the old resource has exhausted itself and it is impossible to continue the life under outdated system of Soviet governance.” Khashig believes that the new government must undertake reforms.
The pivotal question is whether Russia will meddle in the election for a new leader of the self-declared republic. Khashig reckons that the Kremlin will refrain from direct interference given the bitter lesson of 2004 when it publicly backed Khadjimba’s losing bid. But Moscow can be expected to establish ties separately with each candidate. “Every Abkhaz politician is doomed to have good ties with Moscow,” Khashig contends.
Russian exert Fyodor Lukyanov also believes that Moscow will not support any candidate openly. “At the same time, it [Moscow] cannot let things get out of control – that would be a big gift to Georgia and risk further destabilization in the North Caucasus,” Lukyanov told Eurasianet.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia does not expect the change in leadership in Sukhumi to lead to any significant change in the overall situation. Official Tbilisi maintains that, as long as the territory of Abkhazia is occupied and led by Moscow, every election in the region will be illegitimate.