Since the bloodless coup less than a year ago that culminated in the resignation of Aleksandr Ankvab, de facto president of Georgia’s breakaway Republic of Abkhazia, the new leadership of the largely unrecognized polity has already successfully navigated a major political crisis triggered by widespread opposition to the wording of the Treaty on Union Relations and Strategic Partnership that it signed with Russia in November.
But the arrest last month on corruption charges of construction magnate Vadim Matua could herald a new standoff between Ankvab’s successor Raul Khajimba and his team and the opposition party Amtsakhara (Keep the Home Fires Burning).
Following Ankvab’s election as president in August 2011, Matua’s Southern Construction Company (YuSK) implemented some 20 infrastructure projects funded by Russia, which had recognized Abkhazia as an independent state in the wake of the August 2008 war over Georgia's other breakaway region, South Ossetia. (Only a handful of other countries, including Nicaragua and Venezuela, followed suit.)
Ankvab’s economic policy focused largely on the reconstruction of infrastructure that was either damaged during the 1992-93 war that ended with the total loss of the central Georgian government’s control over Abkhazia, or has since fallen into disrepair due to the region’s chronic shortage of funds.
Khajimba, by contrast, plans to channel the funds provided by Moscow into investment projects, rather than infrastructure. Russia has allocated a total of 9 billion rubles (about $180 million) over the three-year period 2015-17, of which Abkhazia will receive 3.6 billion rubles this year. That represents a 50 percent increase over 2014 and is more than Abkhazia’s total budget of a little over 3 billion rubles. Those funds are reportedly ring-fenced and will not be cut even in the event that the Russian budget is sequestered by 10 percent.
Matua is suspected, together with his son-in-law Inal Bargandjia, of embezzling over 7 million rubles (about $140,000) in budget funds allocated for construction of a kindergarten in the coastal town of Gudauta, north of the capital, Sukhumi. Some critics claim the quality of that construction work was substandard. Amtsakhara, on the other hand, says that YuSK is the largest company of its kind operating in Abkhazia, with a workforce of more than 1,000, and has implemented projects using cutting-edge technology and high-quality materials, winning plaudits from senior Russian officials including Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Khloponin.
This is not the first time Matua and Bargandjia have been suspected of financial irregularities. In March 2012, when Ankvab was still president, they were jointly charged with embezzling some 46 million rubles during reconstruction of the Gudauta district hospital. That investigation is still ongoing. Then in October 2014, the Republic of Abkhazia prosecutor-general brought a new case against Matua and YuSK’s chief bookkeeper Timur Otyrba of tax evasion to the sum of 3.49 million rubles.
Matua, who is being held in pretrial custody, responded to the most recent charge against him with an emotional diatribe claiming the case against him is politically motivated. He also accused Khajimba of hypocrisy, violating his presidential oath, and contempt for the Abkhaz people. That statement was posted on Amtsakhara’s website in early April, but removed just days later.
Amtsakhara, whose core membership is veterans of the 1992-93 war with Georgia's central government, spearheaded the campaign last fall to rewrite several sections of the framework treaty with Russia that members argued would weaken the region’s ability to defend itself, insofar as they entailed subordinating or partly subsuming into their Russian counterparts Abkhaz military and security bodies.
The party issued a strongly worded statement in late April praising the work carried out by YuSK and accusing the Abkhaz leadership of making Matua a scapegoat in its efforts to demonstrate success in the promised crackdown on corruption in a bid to deflect attention from its failure to deliver on Khajimba’s election campaign promise to raise pensions. The Amtsakhara statement further chronicled procedural violations in the course of Matua’s arrest.
Matua has not been identified as a member of Amtsakhara, and it is not 100 percent clear whether the party has taken up his cause because it is convinced that he has been wrongfully accused, or simply as a convenient stick with which to beat Khajimba and his team.
Amtsakhara is scheduled to hold a congress on May 22 to discuss the "economic and political crisis" resulting from what it terms the "seizure of power" last year. Whether it can muster enough popular support to pressure the authorities to drop the charges against Matua is debatable, however. In last year’s presidential ballot to elect Ankvab’s successor, Amtsakhara’s candidate Aslan Bzhania placed second with 35.9 percent of the vote compared with 50.57 percent for Khajimba, who thus avoided a second-round runoff by just 559 votes.
-- Liz Fuller