Russia appears to have intervened to curtail a new push by the Abkhaz opposition to force the resignation of Raul Khajimba, the de facto president of Georgia’s breakaway Republic of Abkhazia.
According to a statement posted early on December 4 by Abkhazia’s main opposition party, the Amtsakhara (Keep the Home Fires Burning) union of veterans of the 1992-93 war that culminated in Georgia's total loss of jurisdiction over the region and its de facto independence, Aslan Bzhania, a co-founder of the Bloc of Opposition Forces, has been detained at the Russian border with the breakaway region and taken to Sochi police headquarters.
Amtsakhara said he had been shadowed by police over a two-day period and repeatedly brought in for questioning.
Speaking at an Amtsakhara congress in Sukhumi on November 30, Bzhania had called on Khajimba to step down voluntarily in light of his failure to deliver on the promises he made in the run-up to his election as president in August 2014 following the forced ouster by his Coordinating Council of then-President Aleksandr Ankvab.
Since early 2015, Amtsakhara, which is a member of the Bloc of Opposition Forces, has repeatedly accused Khajimba of failing to deliver on his preelection pledges to unify a polarized society, form a government of national unity, launch constitutional and judicial reform, and use the substantial subsidies Abkhazia receives from Russia (7.7 billion rubles, or $113.94 million in 2016) to kick-start economic growth and thereby reduce unemployment, which is estimated at 70 percent. Russia recognized Abkhazia as an independent sovereign state in August 2008; only a handful of other countries have followed suit.
That litany of complaints largely duplicates the rationale adduced by the Coordinating Council in May 2014 for ousting Ankvab.
Criticisms of Khajimba’s perceived failings, together with allegations of official corruption, incompetence and mismanagement, figured prominently in resolutions adopted at two successive Amtsakhara congresses in May and October 2015. Delegates at the latter congress unequivocally demanded that Khajimba resign, which he refused to do.
Then in early March 2016, a separate 46-person initiative group set about collecting signatures in support of its demand to hold a nationwide referendum on holding a preterm presidential ballot as the only legitimate and constitutional way of replacing Khajimba.
Khajimba was initially dismissive of that initiative, which he said "will not change anything." After the organizers amassed almost twice the required minimum number of signatures in support of their demand, he nonetheless scheduled the referendum for July 10, despite what he termed the threat it posed to domestic political stability. The opposition lobbied unsuccessfully for the date -- coinciding with the height of the summer tourist season – to be postponed. In the event, partly as a result of intimidation by government and local officials, voter turnout was reportedly just 1.23 percent of the region's 132,885 registered voters, and the referendum was declared null and void.
The November 30 Amtsakhara congress marked a new attempt to pressure Khajimba to step down. The estimated 1,000 members present adopted a resolution calling on him to do so by December 15. In the event that he fails to do so, they plan to convene a traditional mass gathering of citizens to demand his resignation, in line with Article 2 of the Republic of Abkhazia constitution, which reads: "Democracy shall be the basis of state authority in the Republic of Abkhazia. The bearer of sovereignty and the only source of authority in the Republic of Abkhazia shall be its people -- the citizens of the Republic of Abkhazia. The people shall exercise authority directly or through their representatives."
The congress was attended by three prominent political figures who had previously not openly aligned with Amtsakhara. One was Sergei Shamba, who served first as foreign minister then as premier under Ankvab’s predecessor, Sergei Bagapsh, and now heads the former ruling party Yedinaya Abkhazia. That party, together with the National Front of Abkhazia for Justice and Development, the Party of Economic Development of Abkhazia (headed by Beslan Butba, who resigned in frustration after serving briefly as premier under Khajimba), and the public organizations Apsadgyl and A Just Abkhazia, addressed an open letter to Khajimba in May calling on him to create a government of national unity.
Speaking last month at a meeting Khajimba convened with various non-opposition parties, Shamba had said openly that "there are obvious reasons why society is dissatisfied." At the same time, he warned against any attempts to act unconstitutionally, lest Abkhazia become "a banana republic" where power changes hands only via a coup d’etat.
The others were Leonid Lakerbaya, chairman of the public organization Aytayra, who had served as prime minister under Ankvab; Major-General (retired) Raul Lolua, a co-founder of the public organization Abkhazia Is Our Home, whom Khajimba had fired as interior minister in May 2015; and Almas Djapua, chairman of Aynar, which one Ukrainian commentator recently characterized as "the party of unemployed youth."
On December 1, the day after the Amtsakhara congress, Khajimba flew to Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin noted the "complicated" political situation in Abkhazia and warned Khajimba that further financial aid to Abkhazia will be contingent on preserving political stability by exclusively legal means.
Whether Khajimba asked for Russian cooperation in detaining Bzhania is not clear. Bzhania had placed second in the preterm presidential ballot of August 2014 with just a few hundred votes less than Khajimba. He declared in his address to the Amtsakhara congress that he is ready to sign a formal statement guaranteeing that in the event that Khajimba does step down, he will not put forward his candidacy in the preterm presidential election that follows.