Abkhazia in the light of the recent (22 February 2012) attempted assassination of President Aleksandr Ankvab

On 12 December 2009 Sergej Bagapsh was elected to his second (and final) term as president of the Republic of Abkhazia. He and his running-mate, former premier Aleksandr Ankvab, gained an outright victory with just over 61% of the ballot, thereby avoiding any need for a run-off in a second round. The expectation was that this pair would remain at the helm of the ship of state as president and vice-president for the next five years, and, like any leader in a final term, Bagapsh, now free from the restraints that naturally ensue from thoughts of having to seek a further mandate from the electorate, fully intended henceforth to concentrate on consolidating Abkhazia’s independence by working to build on the recognition secured from Russia on 26 August 2008 and by taking the state forward in the direction that he felt would best serve its interests. However, this expectation was not to be met. Like many in the Caucasus, Bagapsh was a heavy smoker, and in May 2011 he entered a clinic in Moscow for what should have been a relatively routine operation to treat a recognised respiratory complaint. Though the operation itself was successful, there was an unexpected complication during post-operative care, and he passed away on 29 May at the age of 62. A short while before, all permissions had finally been granted to enable him to make a long-desired trip to visit the large diaspora-community in Turkey, and, at the time of his death, work was being done on the speech that he had been invited to deliver at the Oxford Union, which would have been a ground-breaking trip, for it would have been the first visit of an Abkhazian president to an EU-state (Great Britain); EU member-states doggedly persist in their refusal to recognise the independence of Abkhazia, though a policy of ‘engagement without recognition’ had been envisaged since 2009.

The vice-president took over the reigns of government, and new elections were called for 26 August (Recognition Day). Ankvab and Prime Minister Sergej Shamba resigned from their executive posts at the start of the official campaigning period, Speaker of Parliament Nugzar Ashuba taking over as caretaker-president; the third candidate, Raoul Khadzhimba, who had held office both under Abkhazia’s first president, Vladislav Ardzinba, and in Bagapsh’s first administration, had no governmental position at the time from which to resign — hoping to capitalise on Ardzinba’s popularity, he chose Ardzinba’s widow, Svetlana Dzhergenia, as his vice-presidential running mate.

Electioneering, employing all usual outlets (incuding the internet) and in both Abkhaz and Russian, was intense across the whole country, including in the largely Mingrelian-occupied Gal District; it was fully covered, without favouritism, on the state-TV channel. Shamba’s campaign was unarguably the best financed with a seemingly well-oiled and active head-quarters. The candidates undertook at the start not to engage in ‘dirty tricks’, and the undertaking was largely observed. However, an unpleasantly negative note was struck, when Shamba(’s team) decided to try to undermine Ankvab by shewing a video-recording outside the Philharmonic Hall in which the man who had led Georgian forces into Abkhazia on 14 August 1992, which instigated the 14-month war, Tengiz Kitovani, charged Ankvab with foreknowledge of the Georgian incursion, thereby insinuating a degree of complicity. Ankvab did not deign to respond, as he had made his position clear in an interview in 2003 in response to a similar accusation made by then-President Ardzinba. The tactic backfired disastrously, as anecdotal evidence suggests that many Abkhazians resented this infringement of their idea of fair play, transferring their allegiance from Shamba to Ankvab. International observers from numerous countries as geographically diverse as France, Switzerland, Italy, Russia, Japan, Vanuatu and Fiji declared the ballot and count to be legitimate and above criticism. It became obvious in the early hours of 27 August that Ankvab had achieved a straight victory, with 54.86% of the 101,192 votes cast on a turnout of 71.92%; Shamba trailed at 21.04%, just ahead of Khadzhimba at 19.83%. The high level of proficiency, professionalism and transparency with which the entire process was conducted only confirmed the opinion that many had voiced over preceding years, namely that a significantly greater degree of democracy exists in Abkhazia than in either of its neighbours (Georgia and Russia). Ankvab appeared later in the day with an uncustomarily broad smile on his face to thank the electorate for its vote of confidence in him, and the (?)universal hope across Abkhazia was that nothing untoward would happen to prevent this president serving out a full term in good health — Ardzinba’s second term had been blighted by the onset and advance of a mysterious, debilitating disease that saw him progressively withdraw from public view; he died in 2010 at the age of 64.

Ankvab, a graduate in law, served in the Justice and/or Interior Ministries in Abkhazia and/or central Georgia during the last years of Soviet rule. In May of 1992, Givi Lominadze, an ethnic Georgian who had been Interior Minister in the then Abkhazian Autonomous Republic for three years, was forcibly ejected from his office and replaced by Ankvab, who held this post when the war with Georgia began in August. Some months after Abkhazia’s victory (30 September 1993), Ankvab, who had differences with the war-leader and eventual first president (Ardzinba), abandoned Abkhazia to engage in business-activities in Moscow, where he enjoyed financial success. The article in Abkhazia’s constitution that requires a presidential candidate to have been resident in Abkhazia for the five years prior to declaring his candidacy was included to prevent Ankvab standing in the 1999 election. He withdrew his candidacy in the 2004-election, as he deemed it an insult to have to undergo an oral test of his competence in Abkhaz; he supported Bagapsh and was rewarded with the post of Prime Minister. His refusal to have his linguistic skills tested led some commentators mistakenly to conclude that he did/does not know Abkhaz. In fact, he has an excellent knowledge of the language, as was demonstrated during the 2011-campaign, for which he did submit himself to the said test.

Evidence suggests that, at some stage (?stages) in his career, Ankvab must have made serious enemies. A native of the northern Abkhazian village of Khwap, he lives in the nearest major town, namely Gudauta, the centre of the one province of Abkhazia which before the war with Georgia had managed to preserve an absolute Abkhazian majority in the population-mix. There is only one highway running from the border with Russia (over the R. Psou) down to the border with Georgia (over the R. Ingur), along which Ankvab has to travel to and from the capital, Sukhum. And at least four of the reported six attempts on his life since 2005 have taken place on this road. The latest incident occurred on Wednesday 22 February 2012, as the presidential motorcade was heading for Sukhum. A roadside-bomb was detonated, and this was followed by sustained gunfire. Two bodyguards were killed. Surprisingly (and worryingly), no-one has been arrested for involvement in any of the attacks. It remains unclear if, as a result of the latest incident, Ankvab will agree to live in the presidential residence on the south-eastern outskirts of the capital, where a greater level of security can presumably be provided.

Given the number of attempts on his life, it is reasonable to conclude that even the latest will have been ad hominem rather than a plot specifically designed to undermine the Abkhazian state. This would tend to exclude Georgian responsibility, and the last thing that Russia needs is unrest in Abkhazia in the run-up to the Winter Olympics just over the border in Sochi in 2014, for Abkhazia might be called upon to provide both accommodation in its northern resorts and safe air-transportation at Sukhum’s refurbished airport at Babushera (Dranda), which is larger than the one at Adler (even after expansion), which serves Sochi, and does not suffer from Adler’s disadvantageous closeness to the mountains. Having addressed the need for certain changes in his 2011-manifesto, Ankvab stated: ‘It goes without saying that such changes will also entail reorganisation or, put another way, reform in the remaining structures (ministries and departments). This particularly applies to the power-structures, principally to the system of the Interior Ministry, which should be a real defender of social order and of the battle against criminality’ (pp. 22-3). And, as the insightful local journalist Inal Khashig reminded his Ekho Kavkaza readers in his comment on the events of 22 February: ‘In the past week alone, he [Ankvab] has targeted the Interior Ministry with all its ancillaries, purged the Prosecutor General’s office, dismissing two of the prosecutor-general’s deputies, suspended the work of the Migration Service, and dismantled the Gagra district economic staff. He has spoken openly, without any circumlocutions or beating about the bush, about corruption, the illegal sale of passports, citizenship and land, about money embezzled and inept officials who terrorize both business and the man in the street’ (see www.abkhazworld.com/headlines/803-an-attack-on-sovereignty-by-inal-khashig-.html).

Corruption is rife across the former Soviet space — one might, of course, legitimately ask: ‘Is any country truly free of it?’ — and, given the close-knit family-structures that characterise the (relatively) small Caucasian societies, the region has long been tainted by it (together with nepotism); Georgia, of which Abkhazia formed a reluctant part from 1931 to 1991, was particularly notorious in this regard. It is, therefore, hardly surprising, if regrettable, that Abkhazia should still suffer from this affliction. The problem has only been exacerbated by the socio-economic hardships imposed on the republic by the international community (including, it should not be forgotten, Russia prior to Vladimir Putin’s accession to the presidency) following its victory over Georgia in the utterly futile hope that this would(/will) force the Abkhazians once again to accept subordination to Tbilisi, itself mired in corruption under Eduard Shevardnadze (1993-2003) and latterly, whilst improving in this specific respect, no less prey to nationalism under the dangerously unpredictable Mikheil Saakashvili. When the normal economic levers that allow a society to flourish are rendered inaccessible, members of the relevant society will resort to whatever means are necessary to ensure survival. The task facing each member of Abkhazian society is to resolve the conundrum whereby, whilst individually expecting to be able to take advantage of personal and/or kinship-networks, there exists a general desire for corruption to be uprooted and the rule of law established. This yearning surely explains why the perceived ‘strong man’ won the presidency so easily in 2011.

Had Ankvab perished on 22 February, whilst disorder on the streets might not have manifested itself, societal self-confidence would surely have taken a battering at a time when calm and retrenchment after the shock of Bagapsh’s untimely demise less than a year ago are necessary, for the principal struggle continues to develop the economy, to refurbish the state’s still war-damaged infrastructure, to improve education and health-care, and to press for wider international recognition and consequential investment of capital and know-how. The elections to the 35-seat Parliament, which took place in two rounds on 10 and 24 March, would no doubt have proceeded under a caretaker-president; the way in which the campaign was conducted and the ejection of some well-known members (e.g. former Speaker Ashuba) testifies to the continuing health and maturity in Abkhazia’s democratic structures generally. But whoever would have won the (happily hypothetical) second extraordinary presidential election within less than 12 months would surely have been cowed in tackling the kind of negative vested interests that Ankvab declared to be an essential and prime target. The question now is whether Ankvab himself will press ahead with his previous determination or, unnerved, take his foot off the accelerator of change. Given the character that he has demonstrated so far, it is unlikely that there will be any retreat, and anyone who has Abkhazia’s best interests at heart must surely wish him well in his endeavours, for failure will only serve to set back the attainment of the wider international recognition that the people of Abkhazia deserve after almost two decades of, at best, neglect and isolation, or, at worst, punishment from the international community for defying its misconceived edict that (Soviet) Georgia’s territorial integrity must take precedence over the Abkhazians’ right to self-determination.

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