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Abkhaz Opposition Launches New Challenge To President

Aleksandr Ankvab during his inauguration as president of breakaway Abkhazia in September 2011
Aleksandr Ankvab during his inauguration as president of breakaway Abkhazia in September 2011
The Coordinating Council of 11 Abkhaz opposition parties and movements is demanding from de facto Abkhaz President Aleksandr Ankvab the dismissal of the cabinet and the prosecutor-general, the formation of a "government of national unity" headed by a candidate of its choice, and sweeping constitutional changes transferring to the prime minister many of the powers currently invested in the president. Meeting with opposition representatives on April 29, Ankvab affirmed his readiness for "constructive dialogue with all opposition forces," but rejected the council’s "ultimatum" as unacceptable.

The Coordinating Council was set up last summer with the stated intention of "jointly drafting a political platform aimed at overcoming the crisis in society and creating conditions for implementing political and economic reforms"; conducting a dialogue with the authorities; defending citizens’ constitutional rights; and strengthening statehood. The driving force behind it was former Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia Chairman Raul Khajimba, 56, a career KGB officer who served in 2003-04 as prime minister under then de facto President Vladislav Ardzinba, presiding over a modest economic upswing and promoting economic ties with various Russian regions.

Over the past five years, Khajimba has spearheaded several waves of protest against two successive presidents. Although backed by Moscow, Khajimba was defeated in the first round of the 2004 ballot for Ardzinba’s successor. In the second round, Khajimba and first-round winner Sergei Bagapsh ran as a team, but Khajimba resigned as vice president in May 2009 when opposition parties accused President Bagapsh of unwarranted concessions to Russia in the wake of Moscow’s formal recognition of Abkhazia in August 2008 as an independent state.

Khajimba was defeated again in the December 2009 ballot in which Bagapsh was reelected for a second term. After Bagapsh’s untimely death in May 2011, Ankvab was elected his successor with 54.86 percent of the votes. Then-Prime Minister Sergei Shamba placed second with 21.04 percent and Khajimba third with 19.83 percent.

In February-March 2013, the opposition launched new protests in Sukhumi to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Leonid Lakerbaya and the formation of a provisional government as a sign that the authorities were willing to implement reforms.

A highway engineer, Lakerbaya, 67, served as first deputy prime minister and then as foreign minister under Ardzinba before joining the opposition in 1999. He is said to be a quick thinker and an excellent communicator with both the media and the population at large.

Khajimba accused the Abkhaz leadership of failing to deliver on Ankvab’s election campaign promises and of making decisions without consulting the parliament or informing the population.

On that occasion, Ankvab rejected every single one of the opposition’s demands, including that for the creation of a parliament commission to monitor how the financial aid Abkhazia receives from Moscow is spent.

The rationale cited for the five demands put forward by the Coordinating Council this week largely duplicates its earlier criticisms. In a joint declaration, the council’s members argue that the authorities have no successes to show in any sphere. Unemployment stands at 70 percent of the able-bodied population, the rural population has plummeted, and there has been a huge rise in crime and corruption. What is more, the council statement continues, "instead of reforms and building up the economy, the authorities have channeled the lion’s share of the Russian aid into pointless projects," of which it identifies as the most egregious a sports stadium in Sukhumi.

The opposition’s current demands go further than before: not just the resignation of Prime Minister Lakerbaya, but his replacement by a candidate proposed by the council (presumably Khajimba), who would then select the members of a new "government of national unity." In addition, the constitution would be amended to reduce the powers of the president to the benefit of the prime minister. The fifth demand is for the dismissal of the heads of the Gali, Ochamchira, and Tkuarchal district administrations.

The political movement Amtsakhara, which supports Ankvab, took issue with those demands, which it says pose a threat to the security of the state and the population. In a statement released on April 30, it rejects as unconstitutional the demand to dismiss the prime minister and asks how the proposed new government could qualify as one of "national unity" in light of the defeat in successive elections since 2004 of the man who aspires to head it -- a clear jibe at Khajimba.

Amtsakhara attributes the demand for the prosecutor-general’s resignation to the "firm position" he has adopted with regard to the ongoing trial of nine men accused of a series of attempts to assassinate Ankvab. The party accuses the opposition of being both unable and unwilling to engage in dialogue, and of itself constituting the primary obstacle to the implementation of reforms.

The Coordinating Council set a deadline of May 5 for Ankvab to comply with its demands. If he fails to do so, it intends to convene an informal popular assembly in the hope of mobilizing the population to push for Ankvab’s resignation. Khajimba, who denies categorically either that the council’s demands constitute an ultimatum, or that "anyone is seeking to come to power as a result of a stubborn confrontation," said he hopes the outcome of that assembly will be beneficial for the people and the state.

Ankvab for his part said the May 5 deadline does not give him enough time. He has scheduled a meeting with Amtsakhara members for May 6.

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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