As Georgia seeks to pressure the international community to respond robustly to attempts by its breakaway Republic of South Ossetia to encroach on its territory by shifting border markers, a new political crisis is building in its other breakaway region, Abkhazia, where the opposition has repeatedly called for the resignation of de facto leader Raul Khajimba.
The Agreement on Social and Political Stability signed in December with the apparent aim of averting a violent confrontation between the Abkhaz leadership and the opposition is now dead in the water. Just days after visiting Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov praised Khajimba for the current “political stability” and “favorable political climate,” Abkhazia’s two main opposition forces announced on July 7 that they no longer feel bound to comply with that agreement, which they accuse Khajimba of systematically sabotaging.
Those statements reflect the extent to which the Abkhaz political spectrum remains polarized three years after Khajimba’s supporters stormed the presidential palace and precipitated the resignation of President Aleksandr Ankvab in what the opposition insists was a coup d’etat. Khajimba was elected to succeed him in August 2014 but, within a few months, 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 began accusing him of failing to deliver on his election campaign pledges to expedite economic growth, raise living standards, and seek reconciliation with the Ankvab camp.
Since early 2015, Amtsakhara and other opposition forces have undertaken a series of increasingly organized and forceful attempts to compel Khajimba to resign. At the same time, the litany of criticisms of him has expanded to encompass incompetence; turning a blind eye to corruption; refusing to embark on dialogue with and conducting a witch hunt against his political opponents; denying the opposition access to the state-controlled media; lacking any strategy for kick-starting the region’s stagnating economy; and failing to raise living standards, renovate public buildings and highways, reduce unemployment (estimated at 70 percent), or crack down on skyrocketing crime.
In October 2015, Amtsakhara convened an extraordinary congress to demand that Khajimba step down. In summer 2016, the opposition forced a referendum on calling for his resignation that was pronounced invalid because only a handful of voters participated. Then in December 2016, the Bloc of Opposition Forces of which Amtsakhara is a member convened a mass meeting of its supporters outside the presidential palace, again to demand that Khajimba resign.
That standoff was defused by the signing of a memorandum of understanding in which the two camps pledged their shared commitment to act within the framework of the law and the constitution to promote democracy and preserve stability, and to seek to overcome their differences through “constant dialogue.”
Khajimba, then-parliament speaker Valery Bganba, and three leading oppositionists also signed the Agreement on Social-Political Stability, under which Khajimba undertook to expedite constitutional reforms. The Bloc of Opposition Forces, for its part, agreed to drop its demand for Khajimba’s resignation, in return for which it received the right to nominate candidates for deputy prime minister, several deputy ministers, prosecutor-general, and also four members of the new Central Election Commission and two members of the newly established Constitutional Court.
The Bloc of Opposition Forces subsequently waived its right to nominate a deputy premier. Khajimba, however, failed to forward to parliament for formal confirmation all the opposition nominees to the Election Commission and the Constitutional Court, while parliament rejected several others. In late May, therefore, the three opposition representatives who signed the agreement addressed an open letter to Khajimba warning that continued failure to make good on that omission would be construed as a deliberate attempt by the authorities to seek “an open confrontation leading to new mass actions of protest.”
Khajimba not only ignored that warning but convened one of his rare press conferences at which he cited improvements in the agricultural sector and in solving crime as evidence that “the situation isn’t as bad as some people say.”
Amtsakhara swiftly responded, “No, it’s a lot worse!”
That negative perception imbued many of the speeches at an emergency congress Amtsakhara convened on June 29. The estimated 900 participants included leaders of other opposition parties and former President Ankvab, who was elected to parliament as an independent candidate in the March 2017 ballot.
Bloc of Opposition Forces Chairman Aslan Bzhania, who placed a close second to Khajimba in the August 2014 preterm presidential ballot, deplored the unexplained delay in implementing specific provisions of the bilateral framework Treaty on Union Relations and Integration pushed through parliament in late 2014, just months after Khajimba’s election as president despite widespread criticism by Amtsakhara.
Amtsakhara Chairman Alkhas Kvitsinia enumerated several issues, including cross-border trade with Georgia, on which Khajimba’s pronouncements since his election as president directly contradict the stance he took as opposition leader.
Kvitsinia also accused the Abkhaz leadership of indifference to the rapidly deteriorating crime situation, declaring that “the country is reverting to the Middle Ages.”
Parliamentarian Raul Lolua, who served for several months as interior minister under Khajimba, similarly expressed concern over the ongoing breakdown of law and order. He claimed police routinely fail to register crimes, with the result that of every 400 offenses committed, only 20 ever come to court. Lolua proposed that all political parties and public organizations jointly demand a meeting with Khajimba in the immediate future at which he would be required to provide an explanation for the current situation and a time frame for improving it.
Veteran political heavyweight and former Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba echoed other speakers’ concerns over what he termed “a political crisis that has been going on for years” and which, he predicted, is rapidly approaching “the point of no return.” He deplored the authorities’ lack of an “effective economic model that would allow us to gradually reduce our dependence on outside foreign help,” meaning the billions of rubles Russia supplies in subsidies to the Abkhaz budget.
The Russian Federation formally acknowledged both South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states in the wake of the August 2008 war triggered by Georgia’s attempt to restore its control over the former.
Shamba also argued that the leadership’s lack of either competence or vision risked fueling both the rise of what he termed ethnoradicalism and the alienation of the younger generation who, he said, were increasingly driven to crime by the lack of jobs and social mobility.
The conference participants adopted a resolution accusing Khajimba and his supporters of plunging the region into crisis, failing to adopt a coherent economic policy or provide basic social support in terms of pensions and medical care, and unwillingness to take steps toward national consensus. They demanded immediate measures to curb skyrocketing crime, and warned that in the event that the opposition’s remaining nominees to the Constitutional Court and Central Election Commission are not formally confirmed within 10 days, they will consider walking away from December’s agreement.
Even before that deadline elapsed, however, Amtsakhara and the Bloc of Opposition Forces issued separate statements announcing their withdrawal from the agreement on the grounds that the Abkhaz leadership has not fulfilled its conditions. The opposition party Kyarazaa had done likewise immediately after the Amtsakhara congress.
Neither Amtsakhara nor the Bloc of Opposition Forces gave any indication of what course of action they now intend.
Ankvab had warned in his address to the congress that the population at large is tired of the serial confrontations between the authorities and the opposition; he therefore advocated taking a long-term approach and drafting a strategy for the presidential election due in August 2018.
Russian analyst Nikolai Silayev similarly opined to the news portal Caucasian Knot that the Abkhaz opposition will achieve nothing by reverting to its previous tactic of seeking to mobilize the population to street protests. Instead, Silayev said, the opposition needs to promote a substantive discussion on the prospects for development of the region.