Playing Statehood in Abkhazia

Teimuraz Papaskiri

On 1 June 2014, the third "president" of the self-declared Republic of Abkhazia, Aleksandr Ankvab, stepped down amid protests that started at the end of May. The protests were led by Raul Khajimba's Forum of the National Unity of Abkhazia and Amtsakhara, a union of veterans from the 1992-1993 war. As a result, the "parliamentary speaker," Valeri Bganba, became the interim "ruler" of Abkhazia, whilst the position of "prime minister" was taken up by Vladimer Delba, the finance minister in Ankvab's government. An early "presidential" election has been called for 24 August 2014.

The government of Georgia evaluated these developments in Abkhazia as "yet another reshuffle" and, at first glance, this evaluation seems to have been correct – the current political spectrum of Abkhazia does not include even a single person who does not pursue pro-Russian politics. However, there is one important nuance that must be taken into account when discussing the events unfolding in Abkhazia. The premise used to unseat Ankvab is directly linked to the Georgian population living in Abkhazia. Although corruption in Abkhazia is rampant and Ankvab was accused of being a dictatorial ruler, the main reason for the protest rallies against Ankvab was still the so-called passportization of the ethnic Georgian residents of Abkhazia. Ankvab issued Abkhaz passports to the majority of Georgians who had returned to the Gali district of Abkhazia, which significantly changed the balance of forces. It was natural that the issuance of passports to 26,000 Georgians was viewed as unacceptable for the Abkhazians, especially for Raul Khajimba, who in the past few years has emerged as the leader of an ultra-nationalistic segment of the Abkhaz population. Even though Ankvab was earlier forced to compromise and agree to the introduction of new passports starting in 2015, a move that would automatically exclude Georgians from participating in the "presidential" election scheduled for 2016, this compromise was not enough to help Ankvab save his skin. Presumably the process will now be accelerated and for the 24 August 2014 election only 3,000 Georgians will be left with the right to cast their ballots. Therefore, for neither the Georgian population of Abkhazia, nor for Georgia as a whole, can these recent changes be evaluated as just a "reshuffle."

In reality, this is a Russian game geared towards the direct absorption of Abkhazia. Given the situation that now exists, the majority of the Abkhaz population will not support the idea of joining Russia, and the key factor in that decision will be the votes of the Georgian population there. Even more, when, in early May 2014, the head of the International Abkhaz-Abazin Association, Professor Taras Shamba, put forward a proposal about an association with Russia, the foreign ministry of Abkhazia condemned the proposal and declared that "establishing associated relations with Russia means... losing the sovereignty of Abkhazia, depriving it of the signs of independent state." One cannot rule out that the current crisis in Abkhazia is the Kremlin's response to the Ankvab government's categorical denial of the idea articulated by Taras Shamba and that Aleksandr Ankvab was punished for rejecting joining Russia. Given the current situation, with Russia having seized Crimea and supporting pro-Russian forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, it is absolutely probable that the Kremlin regarded such a position from Abkhazia as unfavorable and that it decided to get rid of Ankvab. All this provides grounds to believe that Raul Khajimba is now playing the Russian game; in that he is supported, to some extent unconsciously, by the ultra-nationalistic segment of the Abkhaz population.

Opposition leader Raul Khajimba at a protest rally in the center of Sukhumi. Photo: AFP
The personality of Raul Khajimba really deserves separate attention. A successful graduate from the State University of Abkhazia in 1984, Khajimba attracted the attention of the Committee for State Security (KGB) of the Soviet Union and thus embarked upon a career in this direction. Having graduated from the KGB school in Minsk in 1986, he worked for the Tkvarcheli security service until 1992. He actively fought against Georgians in the Georgia-Abkhazia war and for that was awarded the Order of Lenin. After the war, he speedily climbed up the career ladder and in the final years of the rule of de facto president Vladislav Ardzinba, he was clearly seen as Ardzinba's successor. That is why he was appointed "prime minister" of Abkhazia in 2003. In the de facto presidential election on 3 October 2004, he enjoyed clear support from the Russian government. Russian President Vladimir Putin even gave him his "blessing" when he received him in Dagomys on 29 August. The Russian "delegations" comprising Russian politicians and performers arriving in Abkhazia were also engaged in propagating in favor of Khajimba.

Nevertheless, Khajimba lost those elections to Sergei Bagapsh, who garnered support from an alliance of nationalist Abkhazians (who were displeased about such conspicuous meddling from Russia into domestic Abkhaz affairs) and the Georgian population of the Gali district. The votes of the latter actually proved decisive (the support of Bagapsh by the Georgian residents of the Gali region was conditioned by Bagapsh's better attitude towards them). The Kremlin was unable to put up with this failure and, presumably fearing that the Gali district's support of Bagapsh would lead to closer ties between Tbilisi and Sokhumi, began to directly interfere in ongoing processes in Abkhazia. A confrontation erupted among the Abkhazians, which even resulted in a number of casualties. At the end of the day, Putin forced Bagapsh to negotiate with Khajimba and to run on a ticket with Khajimba as "vice-president" in a new election that was held on 12 January 2005. As a result of that election, although Bagapsh became "president," "vice-president" Khajimba actually enjoyed similar rights. However, the confrontation between the two leaders did not abate and ended in the resignation of Khajimba in 2009. That same year, each independently stood for the "presidential" election, which ended in a landslide victory for the alliance of Sergei Bagapsh and Aleksandr Ankvab, who were supported by the majority of the Gali district's population, though this time around their votes did not prove decisive.

Since 2009, Khajimba started to transform and began obtaining support from the ultra-nationalists. It is hard to say whether this was his personal desire or whether he was conditioned by the fact that Russia had become disappointed with their unsuccessful Khajimba "project" and had decided to replace him with the de facto foreign minister Sergei Shamba. One cannot rule out that that was a Russian trick – it got rid of an outdated candidate and, at the same time, placed him at the top of the segment of Abkhazians who were not very sympathetic towards Russia (personally, I tend to believe in this scenario). In any case, it is a fact that the early elections of 2011, which were called because of the sudden (and perhaps, not accidental) death of Sergei Bagapsh, saw Sergei Shamba as the leader of pro-Russian forces and Raul Khajimba as the leader of so-called ultra-nationalistic forces who did not much favor the politics of Abkhaz dependence on Russia. Even though Russia clearly preferred Shamba in 2011, Putin did not repeat the mistake he had made in 2004 and acknowledged the victory of Aleksandr Ankvab in those elections. It should be noted that this time around, just like in 2004, the support to Ankvab provided by the Georgian population of the Gali district proved decisive. Consequently, the population of the Gali district became the main target of both Khajimba and pro-Russian forces. Khajimba very efficiently used this issue to trigger dissatisfaction among the Abkhaz population. In 2013, a special commission was set up that went on to establish that there had been gross violations in the passportization of the Georgian residents in the Gali district and that the majority of Georgians had not rescinded their Georgian citizenship, which was a breach of the Abkhazian "constitution" that allows dual citizenship only with Russia. As a result, the decision was taken to introduce new passports. In light of recent developments, one should expect that the Georgian population of the Gali district will come to face problems within next few weeks. Thus, the changes in Abkhazia clearly exceed a mere "reshuffle" and may have dire consequences for a segment of our population.

Sergei Bagapsh.
We should briefly discuss here the attitude of the Abkhaz side towards the Georgian population of the Gali district. This attitude, naturally, has always been negative. Abkhazians have always resisted the return of Georgians to the Gali district (while categorically objecting to their return to any other place within Abkhazia), but given the situation they decided that instead of having an unpopulated territory (historically, Abkhazians have never lived in the Gali district, except for several villages that had been resettled from the Gudauta district in the northern part of Abkhazia at the end of the 17th century) it was better to allow the Georgian residents to come back and then to collect, or rather extort, "dues" from them. Abkhazians step up this activity in autumn, during the so-called "hazelnut season" when hazelnuts are harvested. The Gali district has turned into a key supplier of agricultural produce to Abkhazia. The passportization conducted during the rules of both Bagapsh and, especially, Ankvab offered a sort of relief for the Georgian residents, who were able to improve their living conditions a little. However, recent events have yet again endangered their stay in Abkhazia, especially considering that ultra-nationalists are demanding that ethnic Georgians who have retained their Georgian citizenship be resettled – the majority of the Gali population fall into this category.

Restricting the Georgian population's right to vote in elections is something that is in the interest of not only the ultranationalists, but also the Russian government, which, it seems, seeks to officially annex Abkhazia. There is no doubt that the failure of the campaign to have as many countries as possible recognize Abkhazia's "independence," has nudged Russia towards changing its tactics – especially against the backdrop of events unfolding in Ukraine. Disenfranchising Georgian residents from participating in the political processes underway in Abkhazia would, however, be a serious step in this direction. With the Georgians sidelined, the Abkhazians, the majority of whom are against joining Russia, will find themselves in the minority. There is no doubt at all that the Armenian population of Abkhazia will support accession to Russia as they consider direct citizenship of Russia to be more acceptable. It is a paradox, but the actions of the ultra-nationalists are actually directed against their own interests. They are, in effect, "cutting off the branch on which they are sitting." This represents the path towards self-annihilation. However, the Abkhazian hatred towards Georgians, which they feel on almost the genetic level, deprives them of the ability to reason rationally. Unfortunately, this harms not only them, but also the entire Georgian state. The Abkhazians cannot understand that their lack of reason and their anti-Georgian politics are propelling them towards their end. Unfortunately, there is no one in the current Abkhaz political spectrum who supports reintegration into Georgia – even if there is, no one would dare say that because they would be putting an immediate end to their career. Therefore, the assertion that "we must first recover the people and the territory only after that" is an illusion. The Abkhazian mentality excludes that.

A protest rally in the center of Sokhumi. Photo: AFP
The short-sightedness of the Abkhaz ultra-nationalists is largely conditioned by the peculiarities of the Abkhaz mentality. In general, Abkhazians view themselves as superior to any nation. They believe that they are the only indigenous population of Abkhazia and this gives them superiority over any other ethnic group living there. Although the aboriginal postulate of Abkhazians is so wrong that no serious historian would even deem it worthy of discussion, it is virtually impossible to convince Abkhazians of that today. This invented mythical world is a pillar of their existence. From this "aboriginal" postulate it proceeds that they believe that representatives of other ethnic groups must be content with the fact that the Abkhazians allow them to live on their land and that they should not be able to make any additional claims. It was because of such a mentality that Russia failed to push through its favorite candidate in both the 2004 and 2011 elections. It is this that conditions the fact that none of the Abkhaz leaders who have occupied the position of "president" of Abkhazia, is a complete puppet of the Russian government when it comes to the internal affairs of Abkhazia. An example of this is the refusal of Abkhazians to return apartments to ethnic Russian residents of Abkhazia who have Russian citizenship, thereby causing huge dissatisfaction among the Russian authorities. Abkhazians have become so emboldened that in September last year they killed Russian diplomat Dmitry Vishernev and his wife. The main motive behind this killing was that Vishernev had been actively supporting ethnic Russian citizens in Abkhazia to reclaim their property.

One should also underline yet another quality of Abkhazians. As early as in the Soviet period, Abkhazians sought to perform such jobs that would be profitable but would require less labor (for example, taxi driving, which was a very profitable profession at that time). After the war, the situation changed for the worse. One can boldly say that on 30 September 1993, when Abkhaz insurgents, with the help of Russian armed forces, took control over most of the territory of Abkhazia (back then the Georgian government retained only a part of the Kodori gorge, which Russia occupied during their direct aggression in 2008), a dark era began in Abkhazia. It has already been more than 20 years since the Abkhazians have deemed themselves to be independent. The main "progress" they have experienced during this period of "independence" has been the catastrophic rise in the number of drug addicts and suicides. After expelling the Georgians and taking over their properties, Abkhazians turned into complete "lazybones." They even view Russian tourists only as "possible prey." Russians often deem holidaymaking in Abkhazia as a form of "extreme tourism," because they can be mugged or abducted for ransom at any time. Russian tourists also emphasize the point that a holiday in Abkhazia is more expensive than in Turkey, or even in Italy, whilst the conditions are not comfortable at all. Indeed, it will be very interesting to see what sort of holiday season Abkhazia will have this summer. For years, the Russian government was interested in the success of the holiday season in Abkhazia, but this year, now that it has to take care of the Crimean beaches, the Russian government will probably pay less attention to Abkhazia. It should not be forgotten that in the past few years the budget of "independent" Abkhazia has basically been subsidized with monies directly allocated by the Russian government – these subsidies exceed 70% of its budget. Corruption is rife in Abkhazia and this issue was the main target of Ankvab's fight, though he ultimately failed to achieve any notable success in that regard.

The existence of the Abkhaz regime is fully dependent on Russian politics and the Russian military forces stationed in Abkhazia. True, time and time again, the Russian press has carried articles expressing dissatisfaction with the existing situation there – sometimes even making such "inappropriate" assertions as "it was not worth seizing Abkhazia from Georgia for those Abkhazians who do not respect Russians at all." However, Russian politics remains unchanged in this direction and one can hardly imagine that it will change in the future. The Russian government – and, unfortunately, the majority of the Russian people – are so obsessed with their neo-imperialistic aspirations that they simply cannot imagine having normal relations with their neighbors. As a result, the Abkhazians will continue playing statehood until the Russian government decides that the time has come to hold a referendum on joining Russia. It will probably try to do that by pushing its candidate in the "presidential" election – be it an openly pro-Russian candidate or Khajimba, the current leader of ultra-nationalists. Disenfranchising the majority of the Georgian population will allow Russia to do that. Russia will then probably put an end to the unrecognized "independence" of Abkhazia. In 2008, Putin did not start the war with Georgia to cater for the whims of the Abkhazians. Thus, unless the Russian president is subjected to really strict sanctions imposed by the international community with regards to Ukraine (unfortunately, the likelihood of this occurring is not very high, primarily because of the positions taken by Germany and France), he will take this step without any hesitation. This will put an end to the Abkhazians' playing statehood – something which they have been doing for the past 20 years – and we will be left only with the hope that such actions from Putin will eventually cause a new Cold War with the West that will then lead to the inevitable and very rapid disintegration of the new Russian empire.

Finally, one may think that our prognosis is painted in too dark a color, but I think it is best for the Georgian government to take into account the possibility of events developing in such a way and to stop living under the illusions that "the population of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region want independence" and that "Russia does not need the annexation of these territories." The Georgian government must realize the existence of such a threat and act more boldly in the international arena. Today, as never before, Georgia needs the real support of the Western world to avert the threats coming from Russia. All possible means must be employed to achieve this end.

Thumbnail photo: AFP


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