January 3 marked 100 days since the inauguration of Raul Khajimba as de facto president of the largely unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia.
Khajimba defeated three rival candidates in a preterm election in August, three months after the opposition Coordinating Council he headed succeeded in forcing the resignation of incumbent Aleksandr Ankvab in a bloodless but unconstitutional coup.
In his inauguration address, Khajimba singled out as his most immediate priorities systemic reform, state-building, and uniting a nation split into “us” and “them.” He also stressed the need to sign, before the end of the year, a new treaty on relations with Russia.
That treaty has indeed been signed and ratified, albeit after heated public debate. But the opposition party Amtsakhara (Keep the Home Fires Burning) that had supported Ankvab released a statement two weeks ago dismissing Khajimba’s professed commitment to democracy and openness as purely declaratory. The statement expressed “regret” that the new leadership “has still not set about implementing its pre-election promises and has not begun to implement a policy aimed at overcoming the split in society.” It went on to criticize what it termed the authorities’ disinclination to listen to dissenting voices and recourse to unspecified measures “to settle accounts” with those who did not support them.
Refusal to listen to criticism and the failure to launch desperately needed reforms had figured high on the list of the Coordinating Council’s grievances against Ankvab. A former vice president and Interior Minister, Ankvab had been elected president in August 2011 following the untimely death from lung cancer of Sergei Bagapsh. Khajimba polled third in that ballot with 19.83 percent of the vote. Within 18 months, opposition parties, including Khajimba’s Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia, had thrown down the gauntlet to Ankvab, staging protests in the capital, Sukhum(i), to demand the dismissal of Prime Minister Leonid Lakerbaya. Ankvab rejected that demand point-blank.
In July-August 2013, 11 political parties and movements, including Khajimba’s Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia, aligned in a Coordinating Council with the stated objective of “jointly drafting a political platform aimed at overcoming the crisis in society and creating conditions for implementing political and economic reforms.”
In late April 2014, the Coordinating Council issued a further statement deploring the authorities’ failure to implement urgently needed political and economic reform. The opposition demanded from Ankvab the dismissal of the cabinet and the prosecutor-general, the formation of a "government of national unity" headed by a candidate of their choice, and sweeping constitutional changes transferring to the prime minister many of the powers currently invested in the president.
Ankvab again refused.
Four weeks later, on May 27, the Coordinating Council convened a popular assembly that culminated in the storm of the presidential palace, Ankvab’s retreat to the Russian military base in Gudauta, the formation by the Coordinating Council of a 21-person provisional Council of Popular Trust, the designation by law-makers of parliament speaker Valery Bganba as acting president, and finally, on June 1, Ankvab’s resignation.
Whether, having finally been elected president after three failed attempts over 10 years (in 2004, 2009, and 2011), Khajimba would be willing to deliver on the Coordinating Council’s demand and delegate some presidential powers to the cabinet and parliament was one of the questions analysts began to pose within days of his election victory. Inal Khashig, editor of the newspaper “Chegemskaya pravda,” was confident that “Khajimba understands that if he does not share power with the parliament and political parties, neither he nor the country has a future.”
Moscow scholar Aleksei Malashenko, by contrast, was more sceptical, affirming that “political reforms in a half-traditional multiethnic society dependent on Russia are possible [only] in a pitched battle when you have a free hand. And Khajimba’s hands are tied.”
Speaking in late November on the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Republic of Abkhazia constitution, Khajimba recalled that during the presidential election campaign, he had highlighted the need for constitutional amendments redistributing powers between the branches of government and creating a system of checks and balances that would result in a more balanced system of government. He pledged to sign in “the very near future” a decree establishing a commission on constitutional reform, but no official notification that he has done so has been posted on the government website.
Just two weeks later, Khajimba outlined a rather more nebulous time frame for overcoming what he termed “the pernicious traditions that have emerged within society of lack of respect for the state.” Khajimba told journalists that “in the course of the year we must draft a packet of legal reforms, including constitutional [reforms]. At the same time, the reforms should not lead to the destabilization of the political situation and the weakening of the levers of power. This question requires detailed analysis.”
One could argue in Khajimba’s defense that he may not have anticipated the negative public reaction to the first draft of the new Abkhaz-Russian treaty and the time and effort needed to negotiate an amended version acceptable to both his domestic critics (in the first instance Amtsakhara) and to Moscow. Equally, the process of drafting constitutional amendments should not be rushed. (Abkhazia’s National Assembly is reportedly assessing the comparative merits of several reform proposals.)
At the same time, there is no excuse for Khadjimba’s failure to deliver on election pledges that require only his signature on a decree. Two weeks prior to the August presidential ballot, all four candidates signed a 15-point Social-Political Agreement enumerating the “first essential steps” the new president should take, regardless of his political and ideological views, and stipulating the time frame for doing so.
Among the specific provisions of that agreement for which Khadjimba has apparently failed to meet the deadline, meaning that there has been no report on official websites that they have been implemented, are"
-- Making it a criminal offense to lobby or call for changes to unspecified articles of the Republic of Abkhazia constitution (by January 1, 2015)
-- Making public a list of all state property privatized or leased to private persons between 1993-2014 (by December 1, 2014)
-- Introducing treasury control over budget spending (by January 1, 2015)
-- Imposing a moratorium on the extraction of minerals pending the adoption of an Ecological Doctrine (by January 1, 2015)
-- Liz Fuller