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Pressure On Abkhaz Leader Intensifies

Abkhazia's Sergei Bagapsh is under fire again.
Abkhazia's Sergei Bagapsh is under fire again.
For over a year, the Abkhaz opposition has repeatedly criticized de facto President Sergei Bagapsh for what it considers excessive and unwarranted concessions to Russia.

In particular Bagapsh's defeated rival in two successive presidential elections, Raul Khajimba, has sought to depict Bagapsh as selling out Abkhaz national interests. On the eve of the second anniversary (August 26) of Abkhazia's recognition by Russia as an independent state, the independent weekly "Nuzhnaya gazeta" has published in two consecutive issues materials intended to force Bagapsh to confront Moscow.

The first of those articles was published on August 17 under a pseudonym. It summarizes a draft agreement, purportedly drafted jointly by an Abkhaz-Russian commission, possibly with input from Georgia, that would permit Russian citizens to reclaim their abandoned homes in Abkhazia. The author argues that, if signed, the agreement would pave the way for the return to Abkhazia of thousands of Georgians who fled to the Russian Federation during the 1992-93 war and subsequently acquired Russian citizenship.

He suggests that Georgia may be pushing for the signing of the agreement, which would empower those Georgians to reclaim their homes, in return for signing a formal agreement with Abkhazia abjuring the use of force. To date, Tbilisi has steadfastly refused to sign such agreements with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Then on August 24, according to Caucasus Press, "Nuzhnaya gazeta" published an appeal to Bagapsh by members of the Aruaa union of veterans of the 1992-93 war to secure the extradition from Moscow to Abkhazia to stand trial for war crimes of those Georgian politicians -- specifically National Guard commander Tengiz Kitovani -- responsible for the 1992 incursion by Georgian forces on to Abkhaz territory that precipitated the war.

It was Aruaa and Khajimba's Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia (FNEA) that in May 2009 launched the first salvo in the ongoing criticism of Bagapsh's imputed concessionary policy toward Russia.

Khajimba also played a key role in the campaign one year ago that forced the annulment of amendments to Abkhazia's law on citizenship that would have permitted some Georgians who have returned to Abkhazia's southernmost Gali district to acquire Abkhaz passports. Khajimba and other opposition politicians construed those amendments as a bid by Bagapsh to enlist the support of Georgian voters in his bid for reelection for a second term.

No Georgians Welcome

In an August 20 interview with the official Abkhaz news agency ApsnyPress, Prime Minister Sergei Shamba lambasted the August 17 "Nuzhnaya gazeta" article as slanderous and muddled. He said that he was not aware of the existence of the draft agreement prior to the publication of the "Nuzhnaya gazeta" article, but has since been assured by the presidential administration that Bagapsh has rejected it. Shamba added that although the draft was received from the Russian Foreign Ministry, it was not clear who was behind it.

Three days later, Shamba convened a press conference in Sukhumi at which he explained that the Abkhaz leadership was not averse to considering individual property claims by Russian citizens, and that the Abkhaz prosecutor's office and Supreme Court was already engaged in doing so. But he went on to recall that after the war, many Abkhaz whose homes had been destroyed during the fighting spontaneously took possession of houses or apartments vacated by Russians and Georgians who had fled.

Shamba further argued that the 1992-93 war was precipitated by the Georgian leadership, and the Georgians who fled Abkhazia as a result should "be integrated where they live now, in Georgia." He argued that allowing them to return en masse would create such tensions that a new war would be inevitable.

According to the 2003 census, the population of Abkhazia is 215,272 people. The largest ethnic group were the Abkhazians (94,606 people, 44 percent), followed by the Georgians (45,956 people, 21.3 percent) and Armenians (44,870, 20.8 percent). The return of 50,000-60,000 Georgians would make the Georgians the largest ethnic group, something the Abkhaz are determined to avoid at all costs.

Disputed Draft

The Russian daily "Kommersant" on August 25 quoted an unnamed Russian Foreign Ministry official as suggesting that both Shamba and the author of the first "Nuzhnaya gazeta" article might have implicitly exaggerated the number of Georgians now living in the Russian Federation as full-fledged Russian citizens who might take advantage of the hypothetical draft agreement to return to Abkhazia and lay claim to their abandoned property there.

That Russian official suggested that someone within the Abkhaz government simply had a vested interest in quashing any legal claims on property formerly owned by Russians that has since been lucratively privatized.

At his August 24 press conference, Shamba stressed that "we do not want issues concerning Georgian refugees to cast a shadow on our friendly relations with the Russian Federation."

Shamba divulged that the controversial draft document was sent by the Russian Foreign Ministry to its Abkhaz counterpart, which in turn passed it to the presidential administration. Assuming that Shamba's claim not to have been aware of the existence of that document before "Nuzhnaya gazeta" drew attention to it is true, it is logical to assume that a copy was surreptitiously leaked to "Nuzhnaya gazeta" by a senior official in either the Foreign Ministry or the presidential administration, presumably with the explicit intention of embarrassing the government.

"Kommersant" on August 25 quoted Izida Chania, the chief editor of "Nuzhnaya gazeta," as suggesting that Shamba disavowed any knowledge of the draft agreement on his own initiative, in order to avoid being compromised should Bagapsh subsequently agree to sign an amended version of it. She added that Shamba, who served as foreign minister during Bagapsh's first presidential term, enjoys the status of "a national leader" whom people trust.

Opposition Rallying

In the hypothetical event that Shamba did resign, he could become Khajimba's main challenger in the 2014 presidential ballot. For the moment, however, Khajimba is the most prominent political figure in the opposition camp.

He has already called on three occasions this year -- in February and twice in May -- for the opposition to close ranks and embark on preparations for the parliamentary elections due in March 2012.

Speaking on May 12 at a congress of the FNEA that elected him its chairman, Khajimba lambasted the government for its inability to consolidate society, pursue a rational cadre policy, or implement badly needed reforms, and for its dubious economic policies. He also demanded opposition access to the state-controlled media.

Just one week earlier, 24 opposition figures including Khadjimba had addressed an open letter to Bagapsh, Shamba, and parliament speaker Nugzar Shamba demanding that state TV and radio launch regular weekly discussion programs to which opposition politicians and independent journalists would be invited, and that the independent TV channel Abaza be enabled to expand its broadcast reach. Owned by Economic Development of Abkhazia Party Chairman Beslan Butba, who like Khajimba ran unsuccessfully against Bagapsh in the December 2009 presidential ballot, Abaza at present can be received only in Sukhumi.

Bagapsh responded at length to Khajimba's criticisms, first on May 25 and then in his annual address to parliament on July 7. In particular, he denied that Abkhazia was mortgaged to the hilt to Russia, stressing that the funds for the region's socioeconomic development Russia will make available between 2010-12 constitute unconditional aid, and not a loan that must be repaid. He further argued that the location of a Russian military base in Abkhazia was to the republic's benefit.

Those arguments have clearly failed to convince his opponents. Whether they will intensify their pressure on him and force a political showdown, or whether Moscow might hand over Kitovani in order to alleviate that pressure, is hard to predict at this juncture.

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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