Abkhazia’s ex-President Ankvab rattles ruling party by taking parliament seat

Abkhazia’s ex-President Ankvab rattles ruling party by taking parliament seat
By Carmen Valache in Lund March 14, 2017

Former Abkhaz President Alexander Ankvab reportedly secured a seat in the Georgian separatist republic’s parliament in the March 12 election, despite complaints from the ruling Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia Party. 

In the run-up to the election, the ruling party claimed Ankvab's candidacy would destabilise the breakaway region. However, the parliament's mandate is very limited in Abkhazia, which runs based on a semi-presidential system. The legislative body does not even appoint the cabinet, which is instead appointed by the president. Furthermore, it cannot dismiss the entire cabinet, only vote no confidence in individual ministers.

Abkhazia, which is contested by Georgia and Russia, will hold a second round of voting in most constituencies after the corresponding candidates failed to pass the 50% threshold required to win, the CEC said, according to RIA Novosti news agency.

However, Ankvab, who served as president from 2011 to 2014, won enough votes to secure a parliament seat, Tass news agency reported citing unnamed sources from the Central Election Commission (CEC). 

A total of 137 candidates ran to represent 35 constituencies in the assembly on Sunday. Only 25 of them belonged to specific parties; the rest were independents proposed by so-called initiative groups. 

Ankvab received the endorsement of the Bloc of Opposition Forces and invitations to run on behalf of three constituencies, of which he chose one.

He was forced to step down as president in 2014 by the current incumbent, Raul Khajimba, and his allies. During his tenure, there were at least six assassination attempts against him, and he has spent the last two and a half years in exile in Russia. Since returning to Abkhazia a month ago to run in the election, the death threats against him have reportedly recommenced; some observers attribute the threats to the ruling party and its supporters.

Ankvab explained his reasons for running in a televised address on February 28: he believed that the parliament had sufficient powers to solve some of the "urgent problems" that obstruct Abkhazia's development, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.

An impoverished region that is highly dependent on Russia, Abkhazia broke away from Georgia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and has been at odds with Tbilisi ever since. Russia recognises its independence and that of South Ossetia, another separatist region, but internationally they are still considered part of Georgia. The issue of the two regions has affected Russian-Georgian relations since the early 1990s, with the most severe breakdown in diplomacy resulting in Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008.

Meanwhile, one of Ankvab's main policies - that of creating more border crossings with Georgia in order to contain smuggling and tax cross-border trade - has come to public attention in recent months, as his successor chose to reverse it. As of March 5, the Abkhaz government closed all but two border crossings with Georgia, after threatening to do so for months. The government's decision caused the residents of the Gali district, who are ethnic Georgians and have family ties with Georgians south of the border, to stage a rare protest in January. 

Georgia views the border with Abkhazia as an administrative line, while Abkhazia sees it as an official state border. 

Ankvab's ability to change anything as an MP may be limited, since the incumbent president has the ultimate say on policies. A former prime minister, Belan Butba, resigned in March 2015 citing precisely his lack of influence over decision making as a reason.