Supporters of Raul Khajimba, the embattled de facto president of Georgia's breakaway Republic of Abkhazia, and the parties aligned in the Bloc of Opposition Forces pushing for Khajimba's resignation look set to go ahead with rival meetings on December 15 in the region's capital, Sukhumi, despite an appeal by the city's mayor not to do so.
The Amtsakhara (Keep the Home Fires Burning) union of veterans of the 1992-93 war that culminated in the loss of Georgia's control over the region announced on November 30 its plans to convene a public gathering on December 15 in the event that Khajimba fails to comply with their demand he step down as president. Aruaa, a rival union of war veterans, countered by scheduling a simultaneous demonstration in support of Khajimba.
For the past two years, Amtsakhara, which joined with three other groups in July 2015 to form the Bloc of Opposition Forces, has been seeking to force Khajimba's resignation. They accuse him of reneging on his promise to implement judicial reform and of exacerbating the economic stagnation and polarization of society he had vowed in the run-up to his election in August 2014 to overcome.
Just days after Amtsakhara scheduled its planned December 15 meeting, Bloc of Opposition Forces head Aslan Bzhania was detained and questioned by Russian police in Sochi.
Bzhania was released late on December 4 following separate meetings with Russia's ambassador to Abkhazia, Semyon Grigoryev, held with Amtsakhara's leaders, and with Khajimba. Russia formally recognized Abkhazia as an independent sovereign state in August 2008 following Georgia's abortive attack on its other breakaway region, South Ossetia.
But since last week, Abkhaz police and security personnel wearing black masks and toting assault weapons have been conducting traffic checks on the breakaway region's highways in what some see as a bid to round up other prominent opposition figures, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported on December 10.
On December 11, according to Caucasian Knot, Abkhazia's National Security Service accused the radical elements within the opposition of planning to seize power in a coup d'etat and assassinate Khajimba. It claimed to have found an arms cache in Sukhumi to be used for that purpose.
Speaking at a press briefing late on December 13, Bzhania categorically denied that "anyone is calling for illegal actions." He pointed out that the gathering of citizens envisaged is the traditional forum for democracy in Abkhazia. (Tens of thousands of people attended such a gathering 12 years ago to protest an apparent Moscow-backed bid to falsify the results of a presidential election in order to secure a victory for Khajimba.)
Assuming that the opposition gathering does take place on December 15 as planned, it is not clear how many people might turn out in support of the Bloc of Opposition Forces' demands. Several observers believe many Abkhaz are sick and tired of the standoff between the two factions. Turnout in a referendum in July on whether Khajimba should resign was so low that it was declared invalid.
Having affirmed publicly in late November that "if the entire nation gathers and says that I should quit, I shall not remain," Khajimba has since backtracked, warning on December 7 that "as head of state I do not intend to accept any conditions."
The previous day, the Abkhaz parliament had issued a statement calling on all political parties to demonstrate restraint and act exclusively within the law and to embark without delay on "political consultations" with the region's leaders that the parliament offered to help mediate. To date, however, no such talks have taken place, possibly because Khajimba proposed as mediators the Public Chamber, most of whose members support him unconditionally. Lawmakers further approved the drafting of unspecified constitutional amendments deemed necessary to strengthen political stability.
The heads of Abkhazia's districts expressed concern over the rising tensions and similarly called for dialogue between Khajimba and the opposition.
A similar call for restraint was issued by a group calling itself the Union of Abkhaz Volunteers of the Chechen Republic. (The Chechens who went to fight on the Abkhaz side during the 1992-93 war were headed by Shamil Basayev, Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's teenage hero, who subsequently gained notoriety for his role in precipitating the second Chechen war and masterminding the Beslan school hostage-taking in 2004.)
The standoff between Khajimba and Amtsakhara has triggered dissent within the Yedinaya Abkhazia party, Abkhazia's largest, which is headed by former Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba and which professes to side with neither faction. (In the unlikely event that Khajimba does resign, Shamba would stand a reasonable chance in a subsequent presidential ballot given that Bzhania has said publicly he would not run.)
While most members of Yedinaya Abkhaziya's political council came out on December 2 against Amtsakhara's demand for Khajimba's resignation, some young activists argued that the opposition's criticisms of the current leadership are at least partially justified and proposed that the political council should vote on whether or not to appeal to Khajimba to step down prematurely. The majority rejected that proposal.
Meanwhile, a second long-established party, Aytayra, which is headed by Leonid Lakerbaya, has aligned with the Bloc of Opposition Forces. Lakerbaya served as prime minister under Khajimba's predecessor as de facto president, Aleksandr Ankvab, whom a loose grouping of political parties spearheaded by Khajimba forced to resign in early June 2014. Amtsakhara supporters regard Ankvab's ouster as unconstitutional, if not illegal.
Aytayra and the Bloc of Opposition Forces have signed a formal agreement to cooperate with the aim of stabilizing the political situation, "seeking a way out of the profound crisis in which the Abkhaz state finds itself, and overcoming the split within society."
They also pledge mutual support in the run-up to the parliamentary elections that Khajimba has just scheduled for March 12, 2017.