Less than 18 months after the forced ouster of Aleksandr Ankvab, de facto president of Georgia's breakaway Republic of Abkhazia, a new confrontation is brewing between his successor, longtime opposition leader Raul Khajimba, and the opposition party Amtsakhara (Keep the Home Fires Burning) that supported him.
At an extraordinary congress in Sukhumi on October 21, some 3,000 Amtsakhara members and supporters voted no confidence in Khajimba and demanded his immediate resignation in light of what speakers said was his failure to deliver on any of his campaign promises. They pledged to convene a mass gathering to determine what to do if Khajimba failed to step down within a few days.
Just hours later, however, Khajimba gathered several thousand backers and assured them he will remain in his post until his presidential term ends in 2019.
Khajimba has been in office just over a year. He narrowly won an early presidential ballot in August 2014, 2 1/2 months after spearheading what Amtsakhara describes as the coup d'etat that removed Ankvab from power.
Amtsakhara's criticisms of Khajimba focus partly on his perceived failure to deliver on his preelection promises of a swift improvement in living conditions; partly on his unwillingness to embark on dialogue with his political opponents with the aim of trying to bridge the gulf between rival political camps; and partly on his prevarication over whether or not to give the green light for the exploitation of offshore oil reserves by the Russian oil company Rosneft.
A further bone of contention is the draft law under discussion on the status of "foreign nationals," a category that the current leadership extends to those members of the region's Georgian population who fled during the 1992-93 war that culminated in Abkhazia's de facto independence and have since returned to their homes. In a statement in late December, and again at a congress in May, Amtsakhara accused Khajimba of failing to deliver on his pledges to kick-start the region's stagnating economy, raise living standards, renovate public buildings and highways, crack down on crime, reduce unemployment, and create a government of national unity that would include representatives of opposition parties. They also accused him of unwillingness to embark on dialogue with his political opponents.
In mid-July, Amtsakhara aligned with three other political forces, including the APRA Fund for Socioeconomic and Political Research headed by Aslan Bzhania, who finished second to Khajimba in the August 2014 presidential ballot, and the public organization Abzankhara headed by former parliament speaker Nugzar Ashuba, in the Bloc of Opposition Forces of Abkhazia. By late August, rumors were already circulating that the opposition was planning to topple Khajimba and seize power.
Addressing members of his Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia on August 27, Khajimba acknowledged that "the republic is in a very difficult situation, characterized by new challenges and threats," partly as a result of global political upheavals affecting Russia. Russia is one of just a handful of countries to have formally recognized Abkhazia as an independent state, and since 2008 has provided huge amounts of financial aid. This year, however, according to Khajimba, the volume of aid has been drastically reduced, and it is proving difficult to attract foreign investment.
Khajimba went on to argue that in a time of crisis, political unity is imperative and "political radicalism" and infighting inadmissible. "We are all in the same boat and must steer it into calmer waters," he said.
More recently, in a televised address to the nation, Khajimba again sought to defend himself from criticism, attributing the stagnating economy and ramshackle infrastructure he inherited from Ankvab to the systematic embezzlement or misspending of Russian financial aid by previous leaders. He admitted that "not much has been accomplished yet. More needs to be done."
Khajimba's argument that he has performed as well as could have been expected in the current adverse situation failed, however, to cut any ice with Amtsakhara. On the contrary, speakers at last week's congress stepped up their criticism, arguing that Khajimba's ineffective and short-sighted policies have created a real threat to Abkhazia's continued survival as a quasi-independent state.
Bzhania argued that given the authorities' lack of a clear program to overcome the difficulties the region faces, Khajimba's resignation and new elections are the only wise and expedient course of action.
Amtsakhara Chairman Alkhas Kvitsinia for his part was even more negative. He characterized Khajimba as incapable of any constructive action and said his policies "are dragging him and the country over a precipice." For that reason, Kvitsinia continued, "for the first time, we are ready not just to criticize the authorities, but to fight legally to replace them."
At the same time, both Kvitsinia and other leading members of Amtsakhara stressed that they will act strictly within the framework of the law, rather than resort to "the May scenario," meaning the use of mass meetings and pressure on the legislature that eventually culminated in Ankvab's forced resignation.
Despite those assurances, Interior Minister Leonid Dzapshba appealed in a televised address on October 22 to both supporters and critics of the present leadership "to remain calm and proceed within the framework of the law."
The political party Apsadgyl, founded in mid-August, appealed to Amtsakhara and the republic's leadership to try to resolve their differences at the negotiating table. In a possible indication of dissent within the leadership, Central Election Commission Chairman Batal Tabagua likewise called for dialogue, warning of the dangers of "playing with fire."
Khajimba, however, while continuing to stress the need for "unity," still rejects the opposition's criticisms as misplaced, and has shown no sign of willingness to meet with any of its representatives. That may be because he is waiting to see whether the Bloc of Opposition Force decides to go ahead with its stated intention of convening a pan-national assembly, and how to respond if it does.
In a televised address to the nation on October 19, on the eve of the Amtsakhara congress Vice President Vitaly Gabnia reportedly warned that "any attempt to oust the current leadership" would lead to bloodshed.