Prof. George Hewitt

Democracy in Abkhazia: a testing year

Open Democracy, 21 April 2012

An eventful political period in the Black Sea republic of Abkhazia that began in 2011 with the premature death of its president, Sergej Bagapsh, continued with the election of - then a murky assassination attempt on - his successor, Aleksandr Ankvab. The ensuing challenges make the integrity of the country’s institutions and processes even more important, says George Hewitt.

The story of elections in Abkhazia since the end of the fourteen-month war with Georgia in 1993 has been an honourable one for a young state scarred by the legacy of conflict and destruction and subject to many international pressures, threats and misunderstandings. In the last year, Abkhazia's democratic experience has continued with the election of a new president in August 2011 following the death of Sergej Bagapsh, and with legislative elections in March 2012.

The constitutional processes governing these elections were established in the early post-war years, notably by the constitution ratified on 26 November 1994. The conditions prevailing in the Black Sea territory in the aftermath of the war, which ended on 30 September 1993, had rendered presidential elections impractical; so Abkhazia’s parliament, newly transformed from the antecedent "Supreme Soviet", passed a resolution declaring that Vladislav Ardzinba - who had assumed the chairmanship of the Supreme Soviet before the war and then proved a charismatic war-leader - would be the republic’s president. The constitution of November 1994 formalised the situation where a dominant executive presidency and a subordinate legislature operated in tandem to administer the state, with the first competitive elections to the parliament taking place two years later in November 1996.

It is worth quoting from the Constitution of the Republic of Abkhazia [Apsny] in order to grasp how far this document has both framed electoral politics over the subsequent years and created potential ambiguities. Articles 36 and 37 at the beginning of Chapter 3 on Legislative Power respectively state that "All the legislative authority established by this Constitution shall be exercised by the People’s Assembly (or Parliament) of the Republic of Abkhazia" and that "The Parliament of the Republic of Abkhazia shall consist of 35 members. The elections to the Parliament shall be carried out on the basis of universal, equal and direct suffrage, by means of a secret ballot. The Parliament’s term of office shall be five years. The procedure for the Parliamentary elections shall be established by a constitutional law."

In contrast, Chapter 4 on Executive Power begins with Article 48: "Executive Power in the Republic of Abkhazia shall be granted to the President of the Republic of Abkhazia. The President of the Republic of Abkhazia shall be the head of state."

In the event, the relationship between these two arms of government has generally been cordial, but there have been occasional strains. In 1998, tensions arose when Vladislav Ardzinba was deemed to be behaving in a high-handed way in trying to interfere in the parliament’s decision-making process. In 2009, in the run-up to the presidential election, the incumbent Sergej Bagapsh made a proposal to parliament that roused widespread opposition; after protesters broke into a session of deputies, the proposal was returned to Bagapsh with a request that he withdraw it.

(The president had wanted parliament to sanction the mass-issuing of Abkhazian passports to the Mingrelian residents of the Gal district in eastern Abkhazia, next to the border with Georgia, which would automatically have granted them the right to vote. After the hastily conceived proposal was dropped, only 3,581 Gal Mingrelians were left with permission to vote, of whom 2,947 cast their ballot [56% in favour of Bagapsh]. Such disagreements testify to the open nature of political debate in the state, as was noted with reference to this dispute in Accord: an international review of peace-initiatives [7/1999]).

The parliamentary elections

Sergej Bagapsh was re-elected in 2009 and thus entered his second (and final) five-year term as president. Under normal circumstances, the next parliamentary elections should have been held half-way through his term, in 2012, and the next presidential election in 2014. But Bagapsh passed away in Moscow on 29 May 2011, aged merely 62, due to complications following an operation on his respiratory tract. Despite the unexpected and unwelcome shock, calm prevailed in Abkhazia, and an emergency presidential election was held on 26 August 2011 (the date when Russia had recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008).

The candidates were vice-president Aleksandr Ankvab, prime minister Sergej Shamba, and Raul Khadzhimba, who had held government posts under both Ardzinba and Bagapsh (in the latter’s first term). The campaigning was intensive and fully covered, free from bias, by all the media. The great interest across the country was reflected in a turnout of 71.92% of the electorate, with Ankvab securing a clear victory, thus obviating the need for any run-off. The conduct of the ballot (with voting-slips cast into transparent boxes) and the count (performed at each polling-station) was highly praised by the more than 100 observers from a wide range of countries (from France to Fiji). However, as with all the elections that have taken place in Abkhazia since 1993, the presidential election was ritualistically condemned as illegitimate by the bulk of the international community.

The legislative elections duly followed in two rounds on 10 March and 24 March 2012. Perhaps as a result of voter-fatigue, and despite both active campaigning and wide media coverage after the manner of the preceding presidential campaign, the turnout was markedly lower (44.51% in the first round, 46.21% in the second). Abkhazia's thirty-five constituencies were contested by 148 candidates in all, but the country's majoritarian system meant that on 10 March only thirteen candidates passed the necessary threshold.

One of these was Raul Khadzhimba, chairman of an opposition party, the "Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia" (he had trailed in third position in the 2011 presidential poll), suggesting that the label of "political corpse" attached to him then was somewhat premature. There was instant speculation that Khadzhimba, once elected, might become the next speaker, though it was Valerij Bganba, a member of the previous parliament, who gained this post on 3 April.

A further twenty deputies were elected on 24 March; there will be a re-run on 6 May in one constituency (number 1) where the turnout was too low, and the supreme court has yet to rule on the contested vote in another polling-district (number 21) where toponymist Valerij Kvarchia is one of the contenders (Kvarchia heads the Abkhazian commission that is contesting Russia’s territorial claim to the Abkhazian village of Aibga and its environs). The entire process was again overseen by a range of international observers, who found the proceedings to be above reproach. The first full session of the newly elected parliament was held on 10 April.

156 candidates had initially put their names forward, thirty-five of whom were nominated by registered political parties and 126 by "initiative groups" (thus manifesting a degree of doubling in nomination). The central election commission approved 151 names, three of whom then withdrew. 

Of the remaining 148 candidates, 125 were Abkhazians, even though they compose roughly 50% of the population; this underlines the dominant position of Abkhazians in local politics since 1993. The other ethnic groups (with the possible exception of the Kartvelians, predominantly the Gal Mingrelians, who continue to reside in Abkhazia) still seem to be content with this situation, in recognition of the fact that the Abkhazians made the greatest sacrifice in the Georgian-Abkhazianwar.

The other candidates included eleven Armenians (from around 17% of the population), eight Russians (some 10% of the population), two Greeks, two Kartvelians (around 20% of the population), one Kabardian and one Ossete. Among the thirty-three already elected deputies there are three Armenians and one Mingrelian. Only one woman, Emma Gamisonia, was elected; former deputy speaker Irine Agrba (and, indeed, former speaker Nugzar Ashuba) being among the six of nine former deputies who failed to secure re-election.

In terms of political affiliation, four of the eleven candidates from opposition parties were successful (all from Khadzhimba’s party), while only three members of the main party that supported the Bagapsh-Ankvab ticket in 2009 ("United Abkhazia") were elected - and among the unsuccessful candidates was that party’s chairman, Daur Tarba. This might be interpreted (at first glance) as an expression of disappointment in Ankvab’s presidency after only eight months. But this would not necessarily be an accurate assessment, for United Abkhazia was the creation of, and particularly associated with, the late Sergej Bagapsh, whereas Ankvab’s party-support had originally come from smaller groupings which did not nominate any candidates in this election. How else, then, to evaluate the outcome?

The resilient republic

Among the reasons often given for Aleksandr Ankvab’s victory in 2011 is that he was seen as the most likely to pursue a determined fight against corruption and to establish the rule of law. He had stated in his manifesto the need for reforms in (inter alia) the interior ministry; and in mid-February 2012, he again singled out this ministry as meriting special attention at the same time as enforcing a range of personnel changes. A matter of days later, an attempt was made on Ankvab’s life - the sixth since his return to politics in Abkhazia following some years of success in business in Moscow (where he had moved after disagreement with Ardzinba in the wake of Abkhazia’s victory in the war with Georgia).

On the morning of 22 February, the motorcade conveying the president on his daily journey along the single highway connecting his home in Gudauta to his office in Sukhum came under attack from a roadside-bomb and sustained gunfire; Ankvab escaped unharmed, but two bodyguards perished. 

In these circumstances, an interpretation of the parliamentary-election result suggests itself. Could it be that the voting public decided not to be taken for granted by meekly following previous voting patterns but rather (in a spirit of "a plague on all your houses") to give their support to some new blood in the hope that a parliament so constituted would be more likely to buttress Ankvab’s anti-corruption drive? If so, this might be said to betoken a certain level of sophistication amongst the Abkhazian electorate.

In the meantime, Abkhazia’s international position remains unaltered. The collective refusal of most states to offer recognition to Abkhazia and its elections is a stance they seek to justify largely by reference to the fact that so many of Abkhazia’s pre-war Kartvelian (mostly Mingrelian) population have not lived there since September 1993 but eke out a frequently miserable existence as refugees (or internally displaced persons [IDPs], to use the term insisted upon by those who deem Abkhazia to be still part of Georgia) in Georgia or elsewhere. The territorial integrity of (Soviet) Georgia continues to be assigned precedence by the European Union, the United States and most United Nations member-states over the Abkhazians’ right to self-determination (though when it comes to the Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic, the British government at least prioritises self-determination).

This stance does nothing to alter Abkhazians' desire to strengthen their hard-won independence , which also means improving the economy and addressing social problems (such as reducing the number of senseless deaths on the roads; a recent accident near Gudauta which claimed six young lives is an example of the kind of waste that the country cannot afford). The search continues for wider recognition, or, failing that, to persuade the international community at least to allow citizens of Abkhazia to travel the world on the strength of Abkhazia’s own passports, which fully comply with international standards (just as countries that do not recognise Taiwan or Kosovo accept these states’ passports as valid documents for travel purposes).

This issue was on the agenda of the Abkhazian delegation for the latest round of talks in Geneva on 29 March, though no time was left to discuss it. The Georgian side, for its part, persisted in its attempt to score points over a non-issue, namely the renovation of Christian monuments on the territory of Abkhazia. The groundless allegation was made (and widely circulated in the international media) that the Abkhazians are taking the opportunity to erase Georgian traces in the local architecture. This contrived argument contrasts sharply with the very real act of cultural vandalism, motivated by a desire to liquidate documentary evidence of the Abkhazian presence on their home soil, whereby in the early stages of the 1992-93 war the Abkhazian research institute and library along with the state archives were deliberately torched with the loss of thousands of precious (and in many cases irreplaceable) documents and books.

The Abkhazians have responded to the accusations by allowing international inspection of the renovations at the Elyr (Ilori) monastery, where the visitors found nothing to criticise. As regards the Bedia church, which was built by, and is the site of the burial of, King Bagrat II (IIIrd by the Georgian reckoning), who became the first sovereign of the mediaeval united "Kingdom of the Abkhazians and Georgians" a millennium ago, it is pointed out that it was shelling by the Georgian side during the war which caused the most recent damage to this monument.

The church is a source of great pride for both the Abkhazian church and the public at large, as witnessed by the pages and photographs devoted to it in such luxurious publications as the 128-page book The Holy Sites of Abkhazia (in Russian) or the 239-page album Abkhazia (in Russian and English), both published in 2010 (see Semen Pegov, "Anzor Agumaa: Tbilisi Raised The Issue of the Bedia Church for Political Reasons", AbkhazWorld, 4 February 2012).

In turn this dispute has been overshadowed by renewed tension resulting from the investigation into the 22 February attack on the president. Several individuals had been detained when, on 17 April, moves were made to arrest a 53-year-old former senior official, Aslambej Kchach (he had served from 1993-96 as head of the administration’s bodyguard service, and from 1996-2003 as the republic’s interior minister under President Ardzinba). Kchach thwarted the effort to arrest him by shooting himself, while on the same day another suspect already in detention, Timur Khutaba, was found hanging in his cell, and a third suspect also tried to commit suicide. 

The combination of a president's death, two elections, an assassination attempt, struggles over recognition, domestic economic and social problems, the need to deflect baseless charges - and now, the messy and violent circumstances of the investigation into the attack on President Ankvab, has made for an eventful year. Abkhazia's democracy and institutions have thus far proved resilient. The challenges ahead may require that they become even more so.

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