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.