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Raul Khajimba takes the oath of office in Sukhumi on September 25, 2014.

In July 2013, nine opposition parties and groups in Georgia's breakaway republic of Abkhazia aligned in a Coordinating Council that succeeded the following year in ousting de facto President Aleksandr Ankvab in what was portrayed as a bloodless coup. Earlier this month, Abkhazia's main opposition parties similarly established a Union of Political Parties and Public Organizations with the stated aim of using all available legal means to force the resignation of Raul Khajimba, who was elected Ankvab's successor in an early presidential poll in August 2014.

In one key respect, however, the political landscape has changed over the past five years: The parliament elected in March 2017 has begun to play a more active role, challenging perceived failings on the part of the executive branch, rather than simply endorsing legislation drafted by the presidential administration.

For most of the past three years, Abkhaz domestic politics has been dominated by the mutual antagonism between Khajimba and the opposition. Initially, the most active and outspoken opposition force was the Amtsakhara (Keep the Home Fires Burning) union of veterans of the 1992-93 war that culminated in the loss of Georgia's control over the region. In early 2015, Amtsakhara began accusing Khajimba of failing to deliver on his election campaign pledges to expedite economic growth, raise living standards, and seek reconciliation with the Ankvab camp. In October of that year, it convened an emergency congress to demand his resignation, but without success.

In December 2016, the Bloc of Opposition Forces (BOS) established the previous year by Amtsakhara; the APRA Fund for Socio-Economic and Political Research headed by Aslan Bzhania, whom Khajimba had defeated in the August 2014 early presidential ballot by just 559 votes; and two other small political groups launched a new push to force Khajimba to step down. A violent confrontation in the region's capital, Sukhumi, between supporters and critics of the president was averted at the last minute by talks between the two camps that led to the signing of an agreement on social and political stability under which the BOS would stop demanding Khajimba's resignation.

In return, they received the right to nominate a first deputy prime minister, several deputy ministers, the prosecutor-general, four members of the new Central Election Commission, and two members of the newly established Constitutional Court. In addition, the parliament was to set about drafting constitutional amendments that would redistribute power between the legislature and the executive, including the president.

The truce between the two camps lasted barely six months, however, primarily because Khajimba failed to comply with the provisions of the agreement. Following yet another emergency congress in late June 2017, Amtsakhara and the BOS issued separate statements announcing their withdrawal from the agreement on the grounds that the Abkhaz leadership had not fulfilled its obligations.

Amtsakhara and the BOS did not, however, immediately renew their efforts to force Khajimba to step down. On the contrary, the focus of opposition discourse began to shift from relentless criticism of Khajimba and the government to a more nuanced debate that prioritized the need for systemic reform over criticism of the region's leadership.

That comparative lull came to an abrupt end in late December when it transpired that Khajimba had pardoned and handed over to the Georgian authorities Georgy Lukava, an ethnic Georgian from Abkhazia serving a 20-year prison term for the kidnapping and murder of Abkhaz officials. Amtsakhara and two smaller opposition groups, Ainar and Kyarazaa, accused Khajimba of betraying the memory of those who fought and died in the 1992-93 war that culminated in Abkhazia's de facto separation from Georgia.

Some members of the Abkhaz leadership expressed reservations, too. Even Khajimba's vice president, Vitaly Gabnia, was quoted by the news portal Caucasian Knot as saying that if the Abkhaz side “handed over a man sentenced for such serious crimes and we were not aware of it, then it has to be said that a mistake was made, and those responsible must be [identified]."

More than 1,000 people, including some Khajimba supporters, congregated in Sukhumi on January 3 to protest Lukava's release. Meeting in emergency session the same day, the parliament set up a commission headed by former Interior Minister Raul Lolua to determine whether Khajimba had, indeed, violated the law and the constitution by single-handedly deciding to release Lukava without securing the approval of the pardons commission. After Khajimba personally argued his case to lawmakers, however, the parliament commission decided to refer the issue to the Constitutional Court -- even though, as a result of Khajimba's rejection of opposition nominees, that body is still not at full strength.

That initiative reflects the albeit limited power of the new parliament to serve as a curb on and counterbalance to perceived infringements or inefficiency on the part of the president and government. Of the 35 lawmakers, some 20 are Khajimba supporters, even though only three are members of his Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia. In fact, few parliamentarians represent a specific political party. Neither Amtsakhara nor the former ruling United Abkhazia won representation, and only one of seven Ainar candidates was elected.

Former Abkhaz leader Aleksandr Ankvab
Former Abkhaz leader Aleksandr Ankvab

Instead, the remaining 15 lawmakers are loosely divided into three groups. Former President Ankvab and former CEC Chairman Batal Tabagua each head a group of five or six deputies, while the others are affiliated with Ainar or another opposition grouping, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported on March 28.

That model of informal loyalties is, however, proving increasingly tenuous and fluid. In late December, two nominally pro-Khajimba lawmakers, Ilya Gunia and Dmitry Ardzinba, called for a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Beslan Bartsits on the grounds that the 2018 draft budget submitted by the government to parliament prioritized financing the government bureaucracy over subsidizing agriculture or a comprehensive program of economic development. Twelve pro-government parliamentarians walked out of the parliament chamber before the actual no-confidence vote, which failed by just two votes. (Of the 21 remaining deputies, 16 voted in favor, two against, one abstained, and two votes were ruled invalid.)

Predictably, Khajimba reacted to the protests over Lukava's release by convening a series of public meetings in a bid to convince the population at large that he had acted within the framework of the law in pardoning Lukava, and that the opposition had organized those protests in order to score political points. Former Interior Minister Lolua categorically denies this. In a lengthy interview he gave to AbkhazInform, he said that “there was no political undercurrent to [the protesters'] actions; citizens were simply demanding that the authorities make public the motives for and details of the release of a terrorist and murderer."

Khajimba subsequently dismissed the call by the new Union of Political Parties and Public Organizations for his resignation as “a destructive position, a call for chaos."

In an apparent effort to underscore the key difference between the union's push for Khajimba's resignation and the storming in May 2014 of the presidential administration that triggered Ankvab's ouster, APRA Fund chairman Bzhania stressed at the union's first press conference on January 23 that the opposition was committed to acting within the framework of the law to create a situation in which Khajimba would voluntarily step down.

But even allowing for Khajimba's clear determination to remain in his post, the new union's chances of success are slight, for at least two reasons. First, it may prove difficult to reach a consensus on tactics and time frame, given the diverging priorities of its various members. Amtsakhara and Bzhania may argue that it is imperative to force Khajimba's resignation as soon as possible, given what Bzhania describes as the catastrophic state of the Abkhaz economy. Abkhazia Is Our Home leader Lolua, by contrast, insists that new legislation on both presidential and parliamentary elections must be passed before an early presidential election can be held.

Secondly, Ankvab and Tabagua have not acceded to the union and were conspicuous by their absence from its first press conference. Addressing Amtsakhara's June 2017 congress, Ankvab stressed the need to preserve political stability until the presidential election due in August 2019, rather than expose a population wearied by repeated political crises to new upheavals that could, in his words, undermine the foundations of the state. Instead, he continued, “responsible people, meaning us, should concentrate on preparing for the upcoming presidential election in order to offer society an alternative, to convince citizens that we are right." Ankvab himself is not eligible to participate in that ballot, having reached the maximum age of 65 in December.

But even if Ankvab and Tabagua do not openly align with the new union, they could still play a key role in parliament by systematically thwarting any legal initiative for which Khajimba's supporters require a constitutional majority, with the possible exception of the long-awaited draft constitutional amendments on the distribution of powers between the legislative and executive branches.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Just for what he has allegedly been charged with so far, Makhachkala Mayor Musa Musayev could face 10 years in prison.

For the second time in less than five years, a mayor of Daghestan's capital, Makhachkala, has been detained over a suspected criminal offense.

Police detained 51-year-old Musa Musayev on January 19 following searches of his home and office. Investigators allege that he illegally transferred over 81 million rubles' worth of land in Makhachkala to a public company for a paltry 1.1 million rubles ($19,427) in March 2016.

Musayev has already categorically rejected the anticipated charge against him of inflicting serious damage on the republic's budget by exceeding his authority.

"I have done nothing over the past 2 1/2 years except try to serve my people and fatherland," the independent daily Chernovik quoted him as saying after a court hearing on January 21 at which the judge remanded him in custody for 10 days.

Russian and Daghestani analysts nonetheless see Musayev's detention as the first move in a sweeping and systematic purge of senior officials suspected of corruption that has been expected since October, when Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed Vladimir Vasilyev, the former head of the United Russia State Duma faction, as acting republic head in place of Ramazan Abdulatipov.

Daghestan has long been a byword for endemic official corruption, possibly explaining why, in one of his first addresses to the regional parliament, former police Colonel General Vasilyev singled out as one of his most important priorities ensuring that the organs of state power in Daghestan revert to functioning within the law.

Musayev has degrees in finance and law. Over the past two decades, he has worked in the republican Finance Ministry (headed at that time by Abdusamad Gamidov, now acting prime minister) and in the Makhachkala municipal-finance department under Mayor Said Amirov, who is now serving a life sentence on charges of terrorism and commissioning contract killings. In September 2013, Abdulatipov named Musayev minister of construction, architecture, and housing, and in July 2015 acting Makhachkala mayor.

Shortly after he was confirmed as mayor in October 2015, Musayev vowed to transform the city completely within three years. The population of Makhachkala has doubled, from 350,000 to 700,000, since the late 1990s, but the provision of housing and municipal services has failed to keep pace with that expansion. The shortfall was met in part by the construction of illegal apartments blocks, often on land acquired illegally.

Musayev began his tenure as mayor by cracking down on such irregularities, announcing in September 2015 that he had already annulled 200-300 mayoral decisions made in violation of regulations on the sale and lease of municipally owned land. But it is unclear whether any further action was taken: In October 2016, Chernovik challenged Musayev to specify how many illegally constructed buildings had actually been demolished. Musayev countered by accusing the press of focusing exclusively on negative phenomena while failing to praise such initiatives as the planting of new flowerbeds.

Musayev's performance as mayor drew criticism in other respects, too. The municipal budget deficit increased to the point that, in Musayev's words, the city was on the verge of default. Provision of such elementary services as public transport, garbage collection, and clearing snow from the streets went by the board. In December 2016, Abdulatipov told Musayev outright he was not satisfied with the way Makhachkala was run and demanded the dismissal of its three district mayors. By early 2017, Musayev ranked last in a rating of mayors of the capitals of Russia's 88 federation subjects.

At that juncture, Abdulatipov had already warned Musayev that he would be fired if he failed to improve the provision of basic municipal services, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported in February.

Musayev's professional reputation was dealt a further blow by a high-profile court case involving his son Badrudin. In September 2017, a district court found Badrudin not guilty of assaulting and injuring a police officer who detained him after a minor traffic accident. The prosecution, which had demanded a five-year prison term, appealed that ruling, and in mid-January 2018 Daghestan's Supreme Court annulled it and called for a new investigation.

Rumors that Musayev and other senior municipal officials were suspected of malpractice began circulating in early December; Chernovik on January 19 quoted an unnamed source close to the investigation as saying that the criminal case opened against Musayev "is only the beginning" and that the total number of buildings constructed in Makhachkala in violation of planning regulations was several hundred.

Whether Abdulatipov, who reportedly signed off on the land deal in question and who has publicly spoken up in Musayev's defense, is also under suspicion remains unclear.

Musayev has not yet been formally charged with any crime, but the article of the Criminal Code cited by investigators on causing serious financial damage by exceeding one's official authority carries a possible sentence of up to 10 years.

Nor is the investigation into Musayev's actions likely to remain an isolated case. Just days before he was taken into custody, Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika dispatched to Makhachkala a group of 38 federal prosecutors. Three of them, according to journalist Milrad Fatullayev, will assess the performance of the Makhachkala municipal authorities. According to Vasilyev, they will focus not only on suspected illegal sales of land but also on security problems, the energy sector (the city owes billions of rubles in unpaid gas bills), reactions to residents' complaints, and wage arrears. The other investigators, Fatullayev told Caucasian Knot, have been tasked with investigating the state of affairs in various republican ministries.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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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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