Monica Ellena in Tbilisi -
Alexander Ankvab, head of Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia, resigned on June 1, five days after street protestors stormed the presidential palace accusing him of corruption and misrule. Analysts see this as local political upheaval rather than any machinations related to any independence referendum for this pro-Russian region.
“For the purpose of maintaining stability in the country… I am resigning from the post of President of the Republic of Abkhazia,” reads the written statement the president issued on June 1. The statement brands the opposition’s actions a “coup d'état” and states that consequences of these events “might be disastrous” for Abkhazia.
The announcement came less than 24 hours after the 35-member strong parliament in the pro-Moscow breakaway republic declared Ankvab “unable” to exercise his presidential powers, appointed the legislative body’s speaker Valery Bganba as interim president, and called a snap presidential election for August 24 – just three years after Ankvab was elected. Prime Minister Leonid Lakerbaia also resigned, leaving Finance Minister Vladimir Delba to act as PM until the vote in the summer.
“It is unclear at this stage whether or not the opposition will call for a cabinet change as there are different factions within the opposition,” says Kan Taniya, an adviser for Foreign Minister Viacheslav Chirikba in a phone interview from Sukhumi. “As of now, it seems that the other ministers will remain in office until the ballot.”
Abkhazia is not new to such power struggles. Blessed with a balmy climate - it was once the summer retreat of choice for the Moscow political “intellighenzia” - it also sadly politically doomed. On the collapse of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia fought a bloody war against Georgia in 1992-1993. What was not destroyed during the 13-month conflict fell into decay in the 20 years that followed. Abkhazia has lived in a world of its own, as the world refuses to recognize the Black Sea republic’s independence, and has cut off any political, economic, and trading relationships.
However, the Kremlin formally recognized Abkhazia and Georgia’s other breakaway region of South Ossetia as independent countries after Russia fought a brief war with Georgia in August 2008. Tbilisi still considers the two regions as territories “occupied” by Russia.
A local crisis
Recent events unfolded rapidly. After supporters of the Coordinating Council – a broad group of 11 parties and movements that joined forces last summer – forced Ankvab out of office, he sought protection in a Russian base in Gugauta, north of the capital. Russian presidential aide, Vladislav Surkov, flew to Sukhmi to mediate, but the opposition representatives reiterated that resignation was the only solution they would accept.
On May 29, the opposition had established the 21-member Provisional National Council, claiming legitimacy to perform executive powers of the government – effectively setting up a diarchy in the breakaway republic that ended with Ankvab’s farewell. “The opposition is divided – Ankvab’s out of office is pretty much the only point the opposition could agree on,” says Taniya. “His failure to open a dialogue with the opposition turned into a personal attack against him.”
His chief opponent, Raul Khajimba, has lost two presidential elections: first in 2004, when he counted on Moscow’s support, and then in 2011, when he didn’t. He was appointed vice-president in 2005 as a result of a power sharing agreement with the then elected president Sergey Bagapsh. “Khajimba tried to marshal his supporters against Ankvab last year, but hardly anyone turned up at the demonstration,” explains George Hewitt, professor of Caucasian languages at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, honorary Abkhaz consul to the UK and long-time advocate for Abkhaz independence. “Ankvab’s failure to address corruption, coupled with the example of civil participation in Ukraine, would explain why this time round more people answered [Khajimba's] call.”
Following Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in March, the de-facto authorities in Abkhazia praised the popular referendum, but promptly ruled out a similar scenario for Sukhumi.
Despite speculation about the suspicious timing of the protests, Thomas de Waal, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, stresses the local value of the political upheaval. “It is tempting to see the current crisis as a spillover from events in Ukraine,” he explains. “That would be a mistake. Politics is made and disputed by the ethnic Abkhaz, who probably form less than half the current population — alongside Armenians, Georgians and Russians — but who constitute almost the entire political class in the republic.”
Nationalist-minded members of the opposition also attacked the president’s move to hand out Abkhaz passports to 45,000 ethnic Georgians who live in precarious conditions in Gali, the district bordering Georgian-controlled territory. “Citizens in Gal are citizens of Abkhazia,” argues Taniya, “they should be granted the same rights and benefit of the same freedom of movement.”
But while Abkhazia claims to be independent, it is economically reliant on Russia. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Moscow has granted Abkhazia over $300m in financial aid in 2010-2012, and it has pledged additional $90m for the next three years. The International Crisis Group estimated that in 2012 Russian largesse accounted for at least 70% of Abkhazia’s budget.
Russia sidelines the Abkhaz language in everyday life, the ruble is the local currency, and 90% of the population holds a Russian passport. Every summer hundreds of thousands of sun-hungry Russians flock to Abkhazia’s pebbled beaches, providing much-needed cash. The fragile economy cannot afford to lose tourists. Recent events are already taking a toll on the summer season. “We registered 100 hotel cancelations,” admits Taniya.
Abkhazia hoped to benefit from the Winter Olympics in Sochi, just a cross-country race away, but the $50bn splurged by Russia on the Games remained largely out of reach. In a land where bullet-pocked and bomb-damaged buildings remain an everyday sight, reviving the economy is essential and Russia’s support is vital. “But Abkhazia’s independence is not up for discussion nor negotiation,” adds Taniya.
Georgia’s other breakaway region, South Ossetia, is more open to the idea of joining Russia. As Leonid Tbilov, its leader, said on June 2 South Ossetia’s is already integrating with Russia, in preparation for joining the Russian Federation at the right time.
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