Hopes for an end to the protracted standoff between pro-government and opposition forces in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia have proven premature.
The July 10 referendum in which voters were called upon to approve or reject the holding of an early election for the post of de facto president was declared invalid just hours after polling stations closed. According to the Central Election Commission (TsIK), just 1.23 percent of the region's 132,885 registered voters cast ballots. The minimum required turnout for the vote to be valid was 50 percent.
The catalyst for the referendum was the opposition's anger and frustration with de facto President Raul Khajimba, a former career KGB officer and leader of the Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia and of a loose alignment of then-opposition parties that succeeded two years ago in forcing the resignation of then-President Aleksandr Ankvab.
Khajimba was elected president in August 2014. The pro-Ankvab political forces now in opposition, in the first instance the Amtsakhara (Keep the Home Fires Burning) union of veterans of the 1992-93 war that culminated in Abkhazia's de facto independence from Georgia and the broader Bloc of Opposition Forces of which Amtsakhara is a member, have repeatedly criticized Khajimba's failure to deliver on his campaign promises to form a coalition government, embark on dialogue with other political forces, launch sweeping systemic reform, and kick-start the stagnating economy.
Khajimba sought late last year to counter that criticism by establishing a so-called Coordinating Council that he said would promote dialogue and seek to overcome the polarization of society. He also, belatedly, launched judicial reform and the creation of a constitutional court. But the Bloc of Opposition Forces dismissed the Coordinating Council as a charade and continues to demand decisive action on revamping the economy, reducing unemployment, and cracking down on crime.
In March-April, an initiative group succeeded in amassing over 19,000 signatures in support of a referendum on holding an early presidential vote. (Khajimba's term in office is not due to end until 2019.) And on June 1, Khajimba, who had initially declared that "no referendums or other steps will change anything" he does, duly scheduled the referendum for July 10, and said he would indeed step down if a majority of voters called for an early election.
But according to his critics, he and other senior officials immediately set about what Leonid Lakerbaya, who had served as prime minister under Ankvab, termed "the dangerous game" of sabotaging the referendum preparations, touring the region to warn the population not to take part.
Writing in the Russian daily Izvestia on July 10, Russian commentator Vladimir Zharikhin suggested that the opposition never anticipated that Khajimba would agree to the referendum, and that he called their bluff by scheduling it as soon as possible, at the height of the tourist season, giving them scant time to prepare and campaign.
Whether or not the opposition miscalculated, Amtsakhara scheduled an emergency congress on July 5 at which participants adopted a resolution demanding that Khajimba postpone the referendum until the fall and dismiss Interior Minister Leonid Dzapshba, who had threatened to fire any members of the police who cast ballots in the referendum or whose family members did so.
Khajimba suspended Dzapshba from office, but only after angry opposition supporters tried unsuccessfully to storm the Interior Ministry building in Sukhumi, the capital. But he refused point-blank to postpone the referendum, arguing that it would be illegal to do so.
Amtsakhara responded by calling for a boycott of the vote. But it is by no means clear that that appeal was the sole, or even the primary reason for the low turnout. The news site Caucasus Knot quoted residents of small towns or villages who, in contrast to residents of the capital, were mostly either unaware the referendum was to take place, or had little or no understanding of what was to be decided, or had not been informed of where they should go to vote.
The failure of local authorities and the state broadcaster -- which was supposed to allocate two hours' coverage per week of the referendum -- to provide such basic information tends to corroborate the opposition's accusations of deliberate obfuscation by the authorities.
Neither Amtsakhara nor the Bloc of Opposition Forces has yet announced its plans for further action. TsIK Chairman Batal Tabagua announced on July 11 that the opposition now had the choice between reformulating the wording of the question and applying for permission to stage a new referendum, or waiting two years to pose the same question on the need for an early presidential election. (By that time Khajimba will have only one more year to serve.) Amtsakhara Chairman Alkhas Kvitsinia hinted to Caucasus Knot that the Bloc of Opposition Forces favors the first option.
Amtsakhara member Said Tarkil, Abkhazia's first de facto foreign minister (in 1992-93), noted that the traditional forum for reaching decisions is a public gathering ("skhod") of all adult Abkhaz citizens. He said that the opposition reserved the right to convene such a gathering if the authorities "continue their policy of confrontation." Doing so would, however, lay the opposition open to the charge that it was acting unconstitutionally, given that the breakaway republic's constitution does not define the skhod as a legitimate organ of state power or specify in what circumstances it may be convened.
A further imponderable is Khajimba's July 11 warning that those persons who organized the abortive assault on the Interior Ministry building will be arrested and brought to trial. Given that the assault followed the Amtsakhara congress and some at least of the perpetrators were Amtsakhara members or sympathizers, Khajimba could seek to neutralize the party by bringing its leaders to trial -- even though, according to Bloc of Opposition Forces co-Chairwoman Irina Agrba, Amtsakhara Chairman Kvitsinia did all he could to prevent the successive attacks on the ministry building.
The arrest of senior opposition figures could trigger violent protests of the sort that Khajimba has vowed to prevent -- which raises the question whether he might take that risk simply to discredit his opponents. If he does not, the current tensions, with each side accusing the other of "rejecting constructive dialogue," will only intensify in the run-up to the parliamentary elections due in the spring of 2017.