On July 5, the Abkhaz opposition party Amtsakhara (Keep the Home Fires Burning) formally demanded the postponement until the fall of the referendum scheduled for July 10 on whether to hold an early presidential election. Raul Khajimba, the breakaway region's de facto president, rejected that demand point-blank, arguing that it would be illegal for him to do so.
Khajimba did, however, agree wholly or partially to three of six other demands adopted by Amtsakhara at an emergency congress earlier the same day, including the suspension from office of de facto Interior Minister Leonid Dzapshba, who had openly declared that "the current authorities are against the referendum" and threatened to fire any ministry personnel who either personally cast ballots or whose family members do so. Dzapshba, 55, began his career in the Interior Ministry during the final decade of the U.S.S.R.
But Khajimba made those concessions only after irate oppositionists had tried three times, without success, to storm the ministry building in Sukhumi, ignoring an appeal by Amtsakhara Chairman Alkhas Kvitsinia not to engage in any illegal action. Some 16 police officers were hospitalized with injuries sustained in the fracas.
Khajimba was elected president in August 2014, two months after the ouster of incumbent Aleksandr Ankvab, which Amtsakhara members claim was illegal and unconstitutional.
Within months, Amtsakhara, whose core membership consists of veterans of the 1992-93 war that ended with Abkhazia's de facto independence from Georgia, began criticizing Khajimba for failing to deliver on his campaign 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.
In the summer of 2015, Amtsakhara aligned in a so-called Bloc of Opposition Forces (BOS) with three other political movements, including the APRA Fund for socioeconomic and political research headed by Aslan Bzhania, whom Khajimba narrowly defeated in the 2014 presidential ballot. (Dzapshba placed fourth and last with just 3.4 percent of the vote.)
It was, however, a separate 46-person initiative group that in early March 2016 set about collecting signatures in support of its demand for an early presidential ballot as the only legitimate and constitutional way of replacing Khajimba.
Initially, Khajimba and other senior officials questioned whether such a referendum was constitutional. But after the group succeeded in garnering almost double the minimum 10,000 signatures needed in support, he agreed to green-light the referendum in the interest of "consolidating society and preserving stability."
Representatives of various opposition groups, however, including Leonid Lakerbaya, who served as prime minister under Ankvab, claim that the authorities have systematically done all in their power to sabotage the initiative -- even though the law on referendums has been amended to permit political parties and organizations to monitor the vote, and state radio and TV belatedly agreed to devote two hours' programming per week to the issue. Among the last-minute concessions to which Khajimba agreed on July 5 was to allow people to vote using as identification passports that have expired.
Anri Jergenia, a former Abkhaz prosecutor-general and a leading Amtsakhara member, argued on July 5 that "a referendum can take place only in a state governed by the rule of law. But the current authorities have created an authoritarian regime which refuses to give the people the opportunity to express their opinion." He proposed that the opposition should therefore call for a boycott of the referendum -- although doing so would play into Khajimba's hands.
By contrast, Izida Chania, editor of Nuzhnaya Gazeta, opined that the opposition deliberately set about "destabilizing the situation" and demanded a postponement of the referendum once it became clear that the public at large would not turn out to vote.
It could be argued that by demanding Dzapshba's resignation, Amtsakhara did Khajimba a favor by providing a pretext for sidelining him. Khajimba recently criticized the work of the Interior Ministry, noting underreporting of criminal offenses and the chronic harassment of motorists (including Russian tourists) by the traffic police.
But while Khajimba claimed that the crime rate is falling, other opposition figures argue the opposite. On July 4, one day before the Amtsakhara congress and subsequent standoff in Sukhumi, the Bloc of Opposition Forces addressed an open letter to Khajimba pegged to the abduction two days earlier of a female member of the One Abkhazia party whose whereabouts remain unknown. The Bloc of Opposition Forces claimed crime has reached "terrifying dimensions," and that Dzapshba has transformed the police into "a punitive organ directed against the opposition," while doing nothing to protect the population at large from organize crime.
Last month, three of Dzapshba's predecessors as minister, Otar Khetsiya, Raul Lolua, and Abessalom Beyya, similarly appealed publicly to Khajimba to dismiss Dzapshba, both for his threats with regard to police participation in the referendum and in light of the ministry's lackluster performance in combating crime. They warned that any official attempt to thwart or sabotage the referendum "will only deepen the split within society."