On March 12, voters in Georgia's breakaway Republic of Abkhazia go to the polls to elect a new parliament. The election campaign has been overshadowed by an acrimonious dispute over the participation of former de facto president, Aleksandr Ankvab, who was forced to resign in early summer of 2014 under pressure from the then opposition Coordinating Council.
Supporters of Raul Khajimba, who masterminded that campaign to oust Ankvab and was subsequently elected as his successor, argue that Ankvab's candidacy risks destabilizing the region and jeopardizing the agreement reached in December between Khajimba and the Bloc of Opposition Forces that for two years had lobbied for his forced resignation.
One of the various organizations representing veterans of the 1992-1993 war that ended with the region's de facto separation from Georgia even asked Prosecutor-General Georgy Arshba to launch a probe into Ankvab's alleged handover, in his capacity as Interior Minister, of weaponry to Georgian forces during the early days of that conflict, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported.
The Bloc of Opposition Forces, which endorsed Ankvab's candidacy, responded by stressing that, like any other citizen, Ankvab has the constitutional right to seek election.
Ankvab outlined his rationale for doing so in a televised address on February 28. He said he believes the legislature is invested with sufficient powers to exert a positive influence on the "urgent problems" that hinder the region's development, and that the main objectives of both the parliament and the government are to strengthen state sovereignty (Abkhazia is recognized as an independent state only by the Russian Federation and a handful of other countries) and to effect tangible economic and social development.
The Black Sea region has a population of slightly under 250,000, and is struggling with economic stagnation and infrastructure decay compounded by a lack of investment, high unemployment, rising crime, and drug addiction.
Ankvab's professed confidence in the potential influence of the Abkhaz parliament is open to question, however. Abkhazia uses a presidential political system, in which many, if not all, key decisions, including how to spend the colossal financial subsidies from Russia that keep its economy afloat, are made by a small group of officials close to the president. That group in effect functions as an alternative cabinet, according to former Prime Minister Beslan Butba, who stepped down in March 2015 because its members routinely ignored him.
The parliament's duties are circumscribed: it adopts laws; approves the annual budget; and endorses the candidates proposed by the president for the post of prosecutor-general and National Bank chairman. It is empowered to vote no confidence in individual ministers, but not in the entire cabinet, but has no say in selecting and approving the government.
Khajimba called last year for a redistribution of powers that would strengthen the legislature, specifically by granting it input into the formation of the government. He also proposed amending election legislation to raise to 45 the number of lawmakers and switch from a majoritarian to a mixed majoritarian-proportional system. But those proposals remain on paper.
The formal role of political parties in Abkhazia is therefore limited: indeed, parliament speaker Valery Bganba has gone so far as to affirm that Abkhazia does not yet have a genuine party system, according to Apsny.ru. Consequently, political parties are constrained to act outside parliament to tap into public dissatisfaction with, and bring pressure to bear on, leaders whose policies they consider ineffective or counterproductive, or both, as the Coordinating Council did in 2014 and the Bloc of Opposition Forces in 2016.
Reported Death Threats
In light of those limitations, only four of the eight political parties qualified to do so -- Khajimba's Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia and the opposition parties Aynar, Amtsakhara (Keep the Home Fires Burning), and the National Front for Justice and Development -- have nominated parliamentary candidates.
The region's legislature comprises 35 deputies elected in single-mandate constituencies. The Central Election Commission has registered a total of 142 candidates, just 25 of them representing the four parties listed above. The remaining 117 were proposed by so-called initiative groups. In addition to Ankvab, they include former State Security Service Chairman Aslan Bzhania, who placed a close second to Khajimba in the August 2014 ballot to elect Ankvab's successor; former Prime Minister Sergei Shamba, currently chairman of the United Abkhazia party; former Interior Minister Raul Lolua; and former Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Chirikba.
Four candidates who registered have since withdrawn. Twenty-seven members of the outgoing parliament are seeking reelection, according to the news portal Apsny.ru.
Given the peripheral role played by the parliament in Abkhaz political life, it is not immediately clear why the Abkhaz leadership is seemingly so concerned by Ankvab's election bid, even though it is anticipated he will defeat his two rivals.
Russian analyst Sergei Markedonov raised the possibility -- which he himself characterized as purely hypothetical -- that, given the strong opposition representation in the new legislature, Ankvab could be elected its deputy speaker, or even speaker.
The fact that there have reportedly been threats to Ankvab's life suggests that this is a scenario some supporters of the present leadership are intent on averting at all cost.