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Moscow Dispatches High-Level Envoys To Defuse Tensions In Abkhazia

Demonstrators storm the Abkhaz president's office in Sukhumi on May 27.
Demonstrators storm the Abkhaz president's office in Sukhumi on May 27.
A planned emergency session of the parliament of the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia to discuss how to restore political stability in the wake of the confrontation on May 27 between de facto President Aleksandr Ankvab and the bloc of opposition parties led by Ankvab's longtime rival, Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia (FNEA) Chairman Raul Khajimba, has failed to take place due to lack of a quorum.

Both Ankvab and National Security Council Secretary Nugzar Ashuba have characterized the occupation of the presidential palace by opposition supporters as an attempt to seize power by force.

Meanwhile, Moscow has dispatched to Sukhumi, the Abkhaz capital, former Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev and Vladislav Surkov, whom Russian President Vladimir Putin tasked in September 2013 with overseeing economic development in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It was Surkov who in 2004 coordinated Khajimba's unsuccessful bid for the presidency.

The opposition has been seeking to oust Ankvab -- who was elected in August 2011 following the sudden death of Sergei Bagapsh -- since early last year, and 11 political parties and groups joined forces in the Coordinating Council last summer to that end. In late April, they made public a list of steps they considered essential in order to put an end to Ankvab's high-handed one-man rule and the economic stagnation resulting from it.

Those demands included the replacement of the cabinet by a government of national unity, with a prime minister nominated by the opposition; constitutional changes that would transfer to the prime minister many of the powers currently vested in the president; and the dismissal of the prosecutor-general and the heads of the Gali, Ochamchire and Tkvarcheli districts.

The Coordinating Council originally set a deadline of May 5 for Ankvab to accede to their demands, which he rejected as not giving him enough time. Then after lengthy discussions on May 6 with representatives of the Amstakhara party that supports him, he was hospitalized for 24 hours with high blood pressure.

On May 27, the Coordinating Council convened a "popular assembly," the traditional format for adopting major decisions, which was attended by upwards of 10,000 people (the region's total population in 2011 was 240,705).

Addressing the assembly, Vitaly Gabnia, chairman of the organization Aruaa representing veterans of the 1992-93 war that ended in Georgia's loss of control over the region, branded Ankvab a "tsar" whose unilateral decisions have brought Abkhazia to the verge of bankruptcy. He and FNEA leader Daur Arshba recapitulated the criticisms the Coordinating Council leveled at Ankvab in late April.

They pointed out that unemployment stands at over 75 percent of the able-bodied population, while one-third of the region's total budget goes to financing the government. (Two-thirds of the budget comprises Russian subsidies.) What is more, "instead of reforms and building up the economy, the authorities have channeled the lion's share of the Russian aid into pointless projects," such as a sports stadium in Sukhumi.

Vadim Mukhanov of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) Center for Problems of the Caucasus and Regional Security similarly noted late last year that the Abkhaz leadership has no clear-cut program of economic development, and no sense of what direction to take.

The assembly then selected two delegates, Nestor Zarandia and Konstantin Parulua, to go to Ankvab and ask him to come to address the assembly. Their place was later taken by Khajimba, opposition parliament deputy Akhra Bzhania, and unnamed others. Khajimba said those talks yielded no results whatsoever, while Ankvab later claimed they came close to reaching an agreement on dismissing the government, the prosecutor-general, and the administrative heads of the Gali and Tkuarchal districts.

At that juncture, however, when the opposition representatives were apparently about to report back on their achievements thus far, an unspecified number of assembly participants forced their way into the presidential administration, inflicting some damage to the building but encountering no resistance from security personnel.

Ankvab reportedly fled the building via the rear entrance. The opposition also took control of Abkhaz state television headquarters.

In a subsequent interview with national TV, Ankvab denounced the opposition's actions as an attempt to seize power by military force. (He claimed some participants in the popular assembly were armed.) He further vowed to do all in his power to "prevent events developing in a way that would inflict irreparable damage on our country," stressing that "we still have a chance" to resolve the standoff within the framework of the law.

The Public Chamber has now issued an appeal to both sides in the standoff to resume talks. The statement stressed that the May 27 assembly "constituted a legal expression by the opposition and its supporters of their frustration, demands, and criticisms of the authorities," even though the "subsequent developments," meaning the storming of the presidential administration, were illegal and unconstitutional.

Opposition parliament deputies similarly called for "a constructive dialogue in order to preserve all-national accord and stability."

On one level, the confrontation is the continuation of Khajimba's single-minded, decade-long push to come to power as president. On a broader level, however, it is a reflection of the magnitude of popular dissatisfaction with Ankvab's high-handed and apparently inept leadership. How Nurgaliyev and Surkov intend to resolve the situation is as yet unclear.

-- Liz Fuller

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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