Category Archives: Abkhazia

Georgia – Resignation of Prime Minister

On December 23, 2015 Georgian Prime Minister’s administration made an announcement about Mr. Gharibashvili’s forthcoming press statement but without the presence of journalists. The press conference was delayed several times during the day and rumors about PMs resignation were confirmed by the evening. In his 5 minute long resignation address, Irakli Gharibashvili did not clarify the reasons that led him to such an unexpected decision.

“Holding an office – be it of interior minister or prime minister, and being in government in general has never been a goal in itself for me,” noted Gharibashvili. “For me this is a mean to serve my country!”- said the former PM.

Irakli Garibashvili, 33, who first became a Ministry of Interior (2011) thanks to the working experience with Mr. Bidzina Ivanishvili’s (Georgia’s former PM) private business, was nominated as PM by Ivanishvili, after his resignation from the office (2013).

Although, Georgia’s Minister of Defense Titantin Khidasheli stated that the resignation of Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili was not completely unexpected, as he had achieved all his goals he set and had “paved the way for a new leader, for new blood” to lead the country, the event has raised questions in the society.

Firstly, just few days earlier, on December 18, Georgian government received a green light on visa liberalization process with the EU, meaning that the European Commission positively assessed the policies and actions of the government to fulfill the visa liberalization action plan. Visa free movement in Schengen area was one of the top electoral promises of Georgian Dream and the positive assessment of the EU was considered as a victory of the current government.

Secondly, Georgia is due to conduct its parliamentary elections in fall 2016 and the resignation of the government just 9 months before the elections did not look like right time for a “new blood” as the government would soon move on to “electoral mode”.

PM's Seasons Greetings

PM’s Seasons Greetings

Surprisingly so, Christmas cards featuring the PM with his family were distributed to stakeholders as scheduled, even after his resignation (or they were sent out before the unplanned resignation). This became one of the suspicious signs that the former PM did not plan a resignation well in advance.

Signs of informal governance

The major opposition party United National Movement claims that former PM, Bidzina Ivanishvili remains as an informal decision maker to the government and that Gharibashvili’s unexpected resignation was decided on his behalf.

Opposition MP Zurab Abashidze, Free Democrats noted that the event left him with the impression that “no one, but few people within the ruling coalition, knew about Gharibashvili’s intention to resign.” Abashidze added that keeping the ruling majority members unaware of such an important decision was yet another indication of Ivanishvili’s “informal rule.”

Giorgi Gabashvili, MP, United National Movement suspected that “nothing is changing in principle” with the resignation of Gharibashvili.

“I would call it reshuffle of puppets; Gharibashvili has never been an independent figure and leader. He has always been a very energetic executor of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s orders… and other government members are Ivanishvili’s clerks,” Gabashvili told Imedi TV.

Other opposition leaders and some political experts suggested that the cabinet reshuffle about ten months before the parliamentary elections was possibly made in response to declined public support for the Georgian Dream ruling coalition.

November poll, commissioned by NDI, showed most of the voters undecided; GD’s support among likely voters stood at 18%, which is up by 4 percentage points since August, but 6 percentage points lower than in April, 2015. UNM opposition party had 12% support among likely voters, compared to 15% and 16% in August and April, respectively; Free Democrats – had 7% support, compared to 5% in August and April. (see www.civil.ge)

New Government – No changes in the Cabinet of Ministers

Garibashvili’s abrupt resignation created a need for nomination of the new PM and the approval of the new cabinet, as the existing one could only act as an interim government.

The candidacy of a new PM came from Ivanishvili’s most trusted circle: Giorgi Kvirikashvili, 48 who also joined Georgian Dream after working for Ivanishvili’s private company and earning his trust, was first given the position of the ministry for Economic Development, later shuffled to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Kvirikashvili led the MFA under Gharibashvili’s government and acted as a deputy Prime Minister.

Despite his opposition with the Georgian Dream, the President confirmed the nomination of Kvirikashvili in a timely manner and presented it to the parliament for approval.

Just as short as in one week after PM’s resignation, on December 30, 2015 Parliament of Georgia approved the new government. However, Kvirikashvili did not change a single minister in his cabinet (except for MFA, as he held the position himself). The proposed cabinet of ministers did not get a vote of confidence from the opposition parties in the parliament (UNM and Free Democrats).

Amid the increased discontent with the economic situation in the country, the major expectations of the population concerned the change of the Minister of Finance, as well as the Minister for Education. However, the anticipated reshuffle did not happen.

Unlike Gharibashvili, the new PM Giorgi Kvirikashvili is known for his ability to communicate with the opposition and relatively moderate stand on political rivals. Moreover, Kvirikashvili still remains the most trusted person before Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Apart from his PM office, Irakli Gharibashvili has also resigned from the position of a chairman of Georgian Dream party and with that, prospects of his political future within the ruling coalition have vanished.

Both, the political future of former PM Irakli Gharibashvili and the composition of the ruling coalition Georgian Dream for the upcoming elections remain uncertain.

Abkhazia – Fourth time lucky: Raul Khadjimba elected President

This is a guest post by Karolina Stefańczak at Dublin City University

photo

Abkhazia, a small, de facto state in the southern Caucasus, has elected its fourth president. Raul Khadjimba, the leader of the Forum of National Unity and the former vice-president and prime minister, received 50.6% of the vote and secured victory in the first round of the contest.

It is very difficult to write about the presidential election in a manner that will please all parties inside this mostly unrecognised state and external observers, as there is no agreement on what to call the process, how to refer to the victorious candidate or, indeed, how to understand the events which led to these elections.

For the government in Tbilisi, Abkhazia is an integral part of Georgia, which they describe as a territory occupied by Russia. Georgians don’t recognise Abkhazia’s statehood, institutions or any electoral process on its territory. The European Union and the US readily support Georgia’s position, which is reflected in official statements condemning every election held in Abkhazia. For Abkhazians the lack of wider international recognition of their statehood and the internal processes that regulate its functioning is an unfair denial of a new reality which was created by the collapse of the USSR and the 1992/1993 war that facilitated separation from Georgia. Georgians and Abkhazians use different terms for the war, the border dividing them, and for describing Russia’s role. Place names are even a matter of dispute. Abkhazia’s capital is called Sukhum by Abkhazians and Sukhumi by Georgians; the name of river dividing them is either Ingur or Inguri and the mostly Georgian-populated southern district of Abkhazia is referred to as Gal or Gali.

Then there is the internal division in Abkhazia connected to the events that led to the snap elections on 24 August. When I met with Leonid Lakerbaia, prime minister under the ousted President Alexander Ankvab and campaign manager of presidential candidate Aslan Bzhania, he described the May protests and the takeover of government administration as a coup. By contrast, the influential activists of the Coordination Council and close allies of the then-opposition leader described the demonstrations as a “People’s Assembly”, a gathering which has the highest powers according to Abkhaz traditions. The use of the term “opposition” was confusing as well, as the camp that held power for the three months prior to the elections, as well as the outgoing administration both used this phrase when referring to themselves. In fact all four candidates contesting the elections – all male, in their fifties and army generals – were presenting themselves as newcomers, and the harbingers of change.

The controversial disenfranchisement of over 22,000 ethnic Georgians just weeks before the elections was also interpreted differently by the two rival camps. Suren Kerselyan, an ethnic Armenian and prominent Khadjimba’s supporter, regarded removing this substantial group of the electorate from the electoral list as a simple execution of the existing law, pointing out the alleged illegal possession of two passports by the residents of Gal/i. Lakerbaia, on the other hand, described the elimination 15% of the citizens of Abkhazia from the electorate as “illegal”. Ethnic Georgians did not support nationalistic Khadjimba or his party in the previous elections and constituted the constituency least likely to vote for him in the 2014 contest. For their part Bzhania’s team complained of unlawful distribution of passports to the Abkhaz diaspora in Cherkessk in days and weeks before the election. Indeed Khadjimba’s vote in this polling station, according to the tweet of his close ally Roin Agrba, was much higher than average: 1080 votes of a total 1200 cast (90%).

Accusations proliferated during this dirty campaign and the atmosphere in Sukhum/i during the days leading up to polling day was very tense. Many of the allegations of corruption, unclear business links, murky pasts, manipulating the electorate and vote buying, were based on rumours or not backed up by hard evidence. Occasionally the tension manifested itself in violent incidents: the throwing of a grenade into the garden of the head of the Central Election Commission, firing an automatic gun at the (empty) car of a politically involved journalist, or a fight that many of us witnessed at the front of the CEC Press Centre in Sukhum/i.

Given the history of Abkhazia’s unpredicted election results of 2004 and 2011, and the absence of any opinion polls, the outcome of the vote was difficult to forecast. The organizations and individuals united behind Raul Khadjimba, which included his former rivals Sergey Shamba and Beslan Butba, were not ready to accept defeat. They were openly preparing to contest the possible success of Aslan Bzhania by questioning the voter lists and the credibility of the CEC chair. In the end, they readily accepted the narrow victory of just a few hundred votes over the required 50% threshold. The three losing candidates did not contest the results.

In this way, Khadjimba has won the presidential race at the fourth attempt. He will face major challenges during the coming months, which include fulfilling his ambitious election promises and uniting the divided Abkhazian society. He will also need to deal with the status of ethnic Georgian residents of Gal/i, who are a substantial and politically underrepresented minority.

There are reasons not to recognise the legitimacy of the elections, but irrespective of the level of internal and external recognition of the result Abkhazians will inaugurate their fourth president on 25 September. For the next five years Raul Khadjimba and his administration will govern and represent Abkhazia abroad, participating in Geneva talks and in relations with Russia, regardless of whether the international community recognises his status or not.

In this post I use the terms which are employed within Abkhazia to describe the representatives, offices and political figures, I also use ‘Abkhaz’ as an ethnic category and ‘Abkhazians’ as a category of citizenship that include non-ethnically Abkhaz residents of Abkhazia.

Karolina Stefańczak is a PhD candidate at School of Law and Government / Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction of Dublin City University, researching gender and political representation in post-Soviet recognised and unrecognised states.

Abkhazia – The resignation of a president

This is a guest post by Karolina Stefańczak at Dublin City University

The citizens of Abkhazia will go to the polls to elect their fourth President on the 24 August; two years before the constitutional term of Alexander Ankvab was due to end.

Abkhazia, for the majority of the international community a part of Georgia, has been de facto independent since September 1993. Separation from Georgia came at the cost of several thousand lives during the war on both sides and over 200,000 (mainly Georgian) refugees.

Vladislav Ardzinba, former war-time commander in chief, was elected the first President by the Abkhazian parliament on 26 November 1994, and was re-elected (unchallenged) in direct polls on 3 October 1999. His successor, Sergei Bagapsh, became President in February 2005, despite Russia’s clear support for his opponent, Raul Khadjimba. The results were contested by the defeated candidate, but in order to secure stability in the state, Bagapsh and Khadjimba reached an agreement to share power by nominating the latter for the post of vice-President.

Sergei Bagapsh was re-elected in December 2009 with a majority of over 60% of the vote, defeating his erstwhile deputy Raul Khadjimba and three other contestants. Bagapsh died unexpectedly on 29 May 2011 and an early election was held on 26 August. Three candidates put themselves forward, of whom Alexander Ankvab ran the most unusual campaign – with no posters, billboards nor videos but with long public meetings, during which he often spoke for over two hours. He promised to bring order to the state, end corruption and strengthen Abkhazia’s regional position. His opponents had much more visible and active campaigns, yet on the Election Day veteran foreign minister Sergei Shamba received only 21% of the vote, Raul Khadjimba came last with just under 20% and Alexander Ankvab was elected the third President of Abkhazia with a 55% majority.

Less than three years later, on the 1 June, President Ankvab, the leader of the Republic of Abkhazia, has now resigned under pressure from Parliament and protesting citizens. The rallies at the front of presidential administration lasted almost a week and attracted between five and ten thousand opposition supporters, united under the umbrella of a ‘Coordination Council’ of 11 parties and civil organizations. Since its establishment last summer, the Council had accused Ankvab of lacking control over the administration, governing in an authoritarian style, illegally distributing Abkhazian passports to Georgian residents, who are the largest ethnic minority of the state, and mismanaging Russia’s aid which constitutes a substantial part of Abkhazia’s budget. An intensive campaign against the President resulted in Ankvab losing his comfortable majority in parliament, and he was unable to mobilise supporters to rally in his defence.

There are a number of interpretations of what happened in Abkhazia during the last month. For some influential analysts, it introduced the dangerous precedent of a putsch and an undemocratic transfer of power. Others describe it as the victory of civil society over an inefficient regime. Yet another view characterises the events as an a act of theatre directed by Russia, perhaps to stymy Georgia’s impending signing of an association agreement with the EU.

Similarities with the recent Ukrainian protests that ousted Victor Yanukovych have tempted some to label the events in Sukhumi an ‘Abkhaz Maidan’; the President was overthrown as a result of demonstrations, accusations of corruption have proliferated, and the opposition has a strong, nationalistic dimension. However, attitudes towards Russia divide neither Abkhazian society nor the elites; all but the Georgian minority sees Russia as a guarantor of Abkhazia’s security and economic stability. Raul Khadjimba and his supporters would like Abkhazia to be treated as Russia’s partner rather than as a subordinate, and accused the ousted administration of being too ‘soft’ on the state’s main donor. Trying to find clearly anti-Russian forces among the Abkhaz is a dead end, as is trying to find enthusiasts for Abkhazia integrating into the Russian Federation. The role of Russia in Ankvab’s departure is not obvious, but it is certainly different from the case in Ukraine. While there are rumours and conspiracy theories regarding Moscow’s part in the events, the known facts are that the Kremlin issued an statement at the beginning of the crisis expressing ‘concerns’ and dispatched Putin’s close aide, Vladislav Surkov, to Sukhumi to facilitate negotiations between the two conflicted sides. The protests in Abkhazia, unlike in Ukraine, did not spread outside the capital and lasted only a few days. It was not a massive, grassroots movement, but an organised mobilization of supporters by a united opposition. Ankvab, unlike Yanukovych, was not personally accused of corruption but rather has been tarnished by charges of mismanaging Russian largesse.

The next President of Abkhazia, who by law must be a fluent Abkhaz speaker of Abkhaz ethnicity and not older than 65 years of age, will be elected from a still unknown pool of candidates. Raul Khadjimba, who has not yet declared his intentions, seems a natural candidate of the united opposition, considering that his 2011 opponent, Sergei Shamba, declared that he would not run. Alexander Ankvab is eligible to contest the elections, but has not revealed his plans yet. The lack of professional opinion polls in Abkhazia, combined with claims by the ousted President that he was removed by a coup provides an interesting campaign environment.

De facto independent Abkhazia has had a short, turbulent history and a track record of organising competitive elections with unpredictable results. The August contest will demonstrate whether the small, partly recognised state can again surprise with its choice of President.

In this post I use the terms which are employed within Abkhazia to describe the representatives, offices and political figures, I also use ‘Abkhaz’ as an ethnic category and ‘Abkhazians’ as a category of citizenship that include non-ethnically Abkhaz residents of Abkhazia.

Karolina Stefańczak is a PhD candidate at School of Law and Government / Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction of Dublin City University, researching gender and political representation in post-Soviet recognised and unrecognised states.