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Abkhaz Leader Agrees To Opposition's Demand For Referendum

  • Liz Fuller

Abkhaz leader Raul Khajimba (left) meets with Russia's Vladimir Putin in February, (Russia recognized Abkhazia as an independent sovereign state in August 2008; only a handful of other countries have followed suit.)

Abkhaz leader Raul Khajimba (left) meets with Russia's Vladimir Putin in February, (Russia recognized Abkhazia as an independent sovereign state in August 2008; only a handful of other countries have followed suit.)

Under pressure from opposition forces that have branded his accession to power two years ago illegal and unconstitutional, Raul Khajimba, the de facto president of Georgia's breakaway Republic of Abkhazia, has scheduled for July 10 a referendum on whether or not to hold an early presidential election. Addressing an invited audience on June 1, Khajimba said that although he considered "harmful" the use of a referendum as "an instrument of political struggle," he had agreed to the opposition's demand in the interest of "consolidating society and preserving stability."

Khajimba was elected de facto president in August 2014 in an early vote precipitated by the forced resignation three months earlier of incumbent Aleksandr Ankvab. Abkhazia's opposition parties, in the first instance the Amtsakhara (Keep the Home Fires Burning) union of veterans of the 1992-93 war that culminated in the region's de facto independence from Georgia, have steadily intensified their criticism of Khajimba since early last year. They accuse him of failing to deliver on his preelection pledges to unify a polarized society, form a government of national unity, launch constitutional and judicial reform, and use the substantial subsidies Abkhazia receives from Russia (7.7 billion rubles, or $113.94 million in 2016) to kick-start economic growth and thereby reduce unemployment, which is estimated at 70 percent. (Russia recognized Abkhazia as an independent sovereign state in August 2008; only a handful of other countries have followed suit.)

That litany of complaints largely duplicates the rationale adduced in May 2014 by a loose coalition of opposition parties spearheaded by Khajimba's Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia for ousting Ankvab.

Criticisms of Khajimba's perceived failings, together with allegations of official corruption, incompetence, and mismanagement, figured prominently in resolutions adopted at two successive Amtsakhara congresses in May and October 2015. Delegates at the latter congress unequivocally demanded that Khajimba resign.

Khajimba responded to that criticism by establishing a Political Consultative Council in which all political parties were invited to participate. Amtsakhara declined to do so, however, on the grounds that the council was powerless to influence policy. So, too, did its partners in the so-called Bloc of Opposition Forces formed in July 2015, including the APRA Fund for Socioeconomic and Political Research headed by Aslan Bzhania, who finished second to Khajimba in the August 2014 presidential race.

But it was a separate 46-person initiative group that in early March 2016 set about collecting signatures in support of its demand for an early presidential election as the only legitimate and constitutional way of replacing Khajimba.

Initially, Khajimba was dismissive of the referendum initiative, declaring that "no referendums or other steps will change anything" he does. But two months later, after the initiative group amassed almost twice the required minimum number of signatures in support of its demand, he backtracked, saying that although he considered the holding of a referendum "inexpedient" and unlikely to contribute to the positive development of the country, he would abide by its results.

Defending His Record

In his June 1 address, Khajimba categorically rejected the opposition's criticisms. As in his annual address to parliament in January he enumerated at length what had been achieved since he was sworn in as national leader. Foremost among those successes he named an 18.8 percent increase in budget revenues in 2015 despite a cutback in Russian economic aid, and the 7.8 percent economic growth registered the same year. He noted the launch or ongoing implementation of reforms in the spheres of the budget, banking, the judiciary, and local government, and stressed that the state media freely reflected various points of view.

He dismissed as unrealistic the opposition's arguments that he could and should have achieved far more, accusing his detractors of "demanding miracles from us in conditions where we are using significant means to correct the mistakes made by the previous leadership."

Khajimba claimed to have promoted consensus and reconciliation from the first day of his tenure, and stressed the importance of the Political Consultative Council. He said that the current political situation was reasonably stable and endangered solely by the opposition's aggressive and single-minded campaign "to remove the current authorities at any price."

At the same time, Khajimba continued, the opposition had not cited any valid and cogent reasons why a new presidential election is essential, except that "the situation has become critical" and "Khajimba and his entourage are incapable of governing the country." Nor, he said, had they explained what they would do if they came to power.

He went on to accuse the opposition of seeking to manipulate public opinion and to use the referendum to sabotage the "positive processes" currently under way and thus discredit the present leadership.

Khajimba further claimed that the referendum demand is at odds with the Abkhaz Constitution, and echoed earlier allegations of pressure and violations during the collection of signatures in support of a referendum that cast doubts on its validity. He nonetheless concluded, somewhat inconsistently, by affirming that even though he believes the referendum "poses a danger to our statehood," he will schedule it in order to preserve stability, given that the opposition would have seized on, and may indeed have been counting on, a refusal to do so as a pretext to destabilize the country.

Khajimba again affirmed that he "does not fear the people's choice," and expressed confidence that voters will opt for the path of continued socioeconomic upswing and strengthening statehood which by implication only he and his team can guarantee.

Why Khajimba should have given the green light to a referendum that could ultimately lead to his removal from power, and the legitimacy of which he has openly questioned, is unclear. It is conceivable that he is confident that the Central Election Commission can be persuaded to ensure the outcome is in his favor.

Alternatively, he may be genuinely confident that popular sentiment is on his side, and the opposition speaks only for a disgruntled minority. It is worth noting that in March, Khajimba went out of his way to curry the favor of Abkhazia's small Muslim minority, for which he promised to allocate a plot of land to build a mosque, and of Abkhazia's 30,000-strong Armenian community.

A third possibility is that the current leadership considers the planned referendum a lesser threat to its survival than the demand launched last month by the political parties A Just Abkhazia and People's Front of Abkhazia for Justice and Development for creating a government of national unity. A mini-opinion poll of 1,292 people conducted by those two parties from May 12-15 found that 61.9 percent of respondents assessed the performance of the current government as "bad," 79.7 percent thought its style of work should change, and 66.7 percent advocated the creation of a government of national unity in which all political parties would be represented.

Creating such a government was one of the pledges enshrined in a declaration that Khajimba and his three rival candidates signed on the eve of the August 2014 presidential ballot. On June 1, Khajimba adduced the presence in the current government of two of those candidates (Interior Minister Leonid Dzapshba and Defense Minister Mirab Kishmaria) as proof he had delivered on that pledge.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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