Representatives of several Abkhaz opposition parties on April 22 submitted to the breakaway republic's Central Election Commission 19,314 signatures in support of a proposed referendum on holding a preterm presidential election -- almost double the required minimum 10,000.
That initiative reflects widespread disenchantment with incumbent Raul Khajimba, who was narrowly elected de facto president in August 2014, three months after engineering the ouster of Aleksandr Ankvab.
The Abkhaz authorities have responded to the referendum initiative with a single-minded campaign to discredit and challenge its legality. They seek instead to convene on their own terms the dialogue with opposition political forces that the opposition has been demanding ever since Khajimba took office.The resulting talks on April 13 produced an acrimonious exchange that served only to exacerbate existing tensions.
Initially, the political force most critical of Khajimba was Amtsakhara (Keep the Home Fires Burning), one of several groups uniting veterans of the 1992-1993 war that ended with the loss of Georgian control over the region. That criticism culminated in the demand, adopted at an Amtsakhara congress last October, for Khajimba's resignation.
In July 2015, Amtsakhara aligned with three other groups in the so-called Bloc of Opposition Forces of Abkhazia that also included the APRA Fund for Socioeconomic and Political Research headed by Aslan Bzhania, who placed second to Khajimba in the August 2014 presidential ballot.
Many of the criticisms leveled by the opposition against the current Abkhaz leadership are essentially the same as those directed at Ankvab by the Council of Opposition Forces established by Khajimba in the summer of 2013, and again in May 2014 and which were subsequently adduced as justifying his ouster.
They range from failure to promote democratization, rejection of dialogue with the opposition, and lack of opposition access to state media, to the absence of either a short- or medium-term strategy for attracting investment and kick-starting the republic's stagnating economy, which is heavily reliant on agriculture and tourism, and the squandering of financial aid from Russia, which accounts for the lion's share of the region's budget.
In addition, both Amtsakhara and Bzhania personally have repeatedly reproached Khajimba for failing to deliver on his preelection promises, in particular those to reunite a polarized society and to amend the constitution to transfer some presidential powers to the parliament.
Just days after Amtsakhara's October congress, Khajimba convened a meeting of representatives of various political parties and groups at which he rejected as "unfounded and unjust" Amtsakhara's demand he should step down, and declared his firm intention of remaining in office until his term ends in 2019. At the same time, he said that "we are not afraid of criticism, and we're ready to admit to [our] mistakes." He also reaffirmed his readiness to cooperate with "all social and political forces" and his commitment to promoting pluralism.
Addressing that gathering, Khajimba suggested that the Public Chamber (which had sought in May 2014 to mediate between the Council of Opposition Forces and Ankvab) should serve as the medium for dialogue with his opponents. And in December, according to Bzhania, the Public Chamber did organize a meeting with himself and Amtsakhara Deputy Chairman Alkhas Kvitsinia, but failed to invite Irina Agrba, head of the group Women in Politics which is likewise a member of the Bloc of Opposition Forces.
Despite Khajimba's assurances that the opposition would have the opportunity to promulgate its views through the state media, Abkhaz state TV did not broadcast the addresses to that Public Chamber session of either Bzhania or Kvitsinia. Both APRA and Amtsakhara subsequently adduced the authorities' consistent side-lining of them as one of the reasons why they see no point in participating in a new Political Consultative Council that Khajimba set up in January with the stated intention of "heightening the effectiveness of cooperation between the organs of state power and political parties."
Instead, at a meeting with youth representatives that the Bloc of Opposition Forces convened in early February, Bzhania floated the idea of a referendum of no confidence in Khajimba.
Khajimba's initial reaction to that proposal was dismissive: Amtsakhara in early March quoted him as saying that "no referendums or other steps will change anything" he does. At the same time, Khajimba reaffirmed yet again that "the doors are open" to any opposition representatives willing to engage in "constructive dialogue."
Khajimba's Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia (FNEA) immediately dismissed the referendum initiative as unfounded, destructive and destabilizing, and enumerated various positive measures undertaken at Khajimba's behest, including judicial reform.
Differences of agreement emerged later, however, within the Abkhaz leadership as to whether or not the referendum initiative is constitutional. The presidential press service described the initiative as "dubious" in that respect. Vice President Vitaly Gabnia, for his part, pointed out that the Republic of Abkhazia constitution makes provision for a preterm presidential ballot in only three cases -- if the incumbent dies, resigns, or is impeached -- but not on the basis of a referendum.
Prosecutor-General Aleksei Lomia, however, has argued that the Initiative Group has the constitutional right to demand the holding of a referendum, provided its members act within the framework of the law.
New Political Groupings
Meanwhile, the confrontation between the leadership and the Bloc of Opposition Forces has served as the catalyst for the emergence of new political groups and alignments. The new youth group Kyarazaa immediately came out in opposition to the current leadership, accusing it of violating the constitution and seizing power in 2014. Kyarazaa identifies as its primary objectives unifying society and strengthening law and order.
Abkhazia is Our Home is described by its chairman, former Interior Minister Raul Lolua, as committed to strengthening statehood, improving socioeconomic conditions, and promoting civic unity. It is, in Lolua's words, independent, and neither pro-government nor pro-opposition.
The People's Front of Abkhazia for Justice and Development, the founding congress of which took place in January, focuses primarily on economic production and supporting the emergence of a middle class. Its 65 founding members describe themselves as a "constructive opposition" that will not only criticize the current leadership but propose "alternatives paths of development."
Arguably the most significant development, however, is the return to national politics after a five year hiatus of Sergei Shamba, who served for many years as de facto foreign minister before losing the 2011 presidential ballot to Ankvab.In late January, Shamba was elected chairman of the One Abkhazia party, which was established in 2004 to back the candidacy of then Prime Minister Sergei Bagapsh in the presidential elections that fall. One Abkhazia then demonstratively pulled out of Khajimba's Coordinating Council, citing as its reason for doing so the fact that, with the exception of Khajimba's FNEA, all other Council members "may play only walk-on roles."
One Abkhazia has since aligned with two other former Coordinating Council members, the People's Party of Abkhazia and the Economic Development Party of Abkhazia (PERA), and several other parties and groups in a new Council of National Unity of the Republic of Abkhazia (SNERA) intended, according to Shamba, to unite parties in the center of the political spectrum. He stressed that "we are not pro-government political forces, but not opposition either."
Also positioning itself in the role of a centrist party seeking to promote unity is A Just Abkhazia, which on April 15 invited all political forces to a meeting at which it proposed creating a coalition government. Shamba expressed qualified support for that proposal.
PERA's founder and long-time chairman is wealthy businessman Beslan Butba, who resigned in March 2015 after serving for less than six months as prime minister under Khajimba, complaining that he had been consistently side-lined by the presidential administration.
If the Initiative Group succeeds in forcing a referendum, and Abkhazia's electorate approves the idea of a preterm presidential ballot, both admittedly very large "ifs," the election could prove a fiercely fought three-way competition between Khajimba, Bzhania, and Shamba.