Abkhazia on the eve of elections: interviews with the candidates

The disputed region of Abkhazia holds its presidential elections tomorrow. Earlier in the election campaign, Oliver Carroll travelled to Sukhum to speak to the two leading candidates, Alyksandr Ankvab and Sergei Shamba.

Breakaway Abkhazia holds presidential elections tomorrow, August 26, following the post-operative death of its second President, Sergei Bagapsh. The region and its political elite were caught entirely unprepared when the popular Bagapsh passed away in May. With elections previously scheduled only for 2014, party machines were standing idle, and a three-month constitutional cut-off for new elections meant they had little time to get organised. The ensuing campaign has been rushed and erratic, and — despite solemn pledges by the candidates to be on their best behaviour (link in Russian) — has also descended into scandal. 

The campaign pitted three supposedly pragmatic politicians against each other. On paper, they all agree on the basics: for Abkhaz independence, for the primacy of economic growth and against all concessions to Georgia. Distinctions are a matter of personality and tonality. For a long time, acting President Alyksandr Ankvab was the front-runner. A formidable politician of Soviet mould, and survivor of five assassination attempts, Ankvab’s pitch combined his administrative experience with a tough stance on rule-of-law issues. His nearest opponent was his acting deputy and former foreign minister, Sergei Shamba. Cultured multinationalist with liberal inclinations, Shamba has played on a patriotic appeal (highlighting his past as head of the Aidgylara Abkhaz independence movement), and he enjoys good relations with Moscow. Raul Khadjimba, the outsider in the contest, presents a more brazenly nationalist appeal. His campaign had problems getting off the ground: unable to unify the opposition and without real finance.

"The campaign has been rushed and erratic, and — despite solemn pledges by the candidates to be on their best behaviour — has also descended into scandal"

With Ankvab marching into a double-digit lead at one point, the election needed something big to turn it. When it came, the obstruction was both big and ugly. On August 12, the Russian newspaper Moskovsksaya pravda published claims that Ankvab had been secretly collaborating with Georgia at the height of the armed conflict in the 1990s. Worse still, this was being alleged by Abkhazia’s arch-enemy Tengiz Kitovani, the reviled former Georgian military commander and current Moscow exile. The allegations were then repeated in a film broadcast to several hundred people outside a concert hall in the capital, Sukhum. If true, the revelation would amount to treason of the highest order in the eyes of Abkhazians, and it could not have come at a worse time for Ankvab. For many observers, however, there was much which did not add up: why did they find out now and not in previous elections where Ankvab had run as vice-President? And why did Sergei Shamba’s entourage seem to know about the claims before they were announced? Fingers began to be pointed at Shamba, and Russia, for engaging in a dirty tricks campaign.

While the allegations have undoubtedly damaged Ankvab, he has chosen to highlight what he sees as clear parallels with the Russian manipulation of the 2004 Presidential election. “I call on my opponents not to fall into the same trap as 2004, which almost led to armed confrontation; so dangerous for such a young state”, he has said. In 2004, the opposition candidate Sergei Bagapsh won against all the odds, and the Kremlin candidate Raul Khajimba. Bagapsh’s victory is frequently heralded as an example of Abkhazian independence from Russia (in sharp contrast to the other Georgian tearaway, South Ossetia, which seems to have set its sights on full integration). While the 2011 Abkhazian election is unlikely to have much effect on the immediate geopolitics of the region, how the electorate responds to the latest scandal may indeed say a lot about how responsive they will be to Russian influence in the mid term.

The two interviews which follow were conducted in an earlier stage of the election campaign. Raul Khadjimba was unavailable for interview.

[Jump to: interview with Alyksandr Ankvab]



Former foreign secretary Sergei Shamba is considered the most
presentationally astute candidate, and the one with closest links to the
Kremlin. Photo: georgadze.org

Sergei Shamba

OC - The history of the last twenty years in Abkhazia has been far from simple. How do you see the situation over the next twenty years — in a social, political, economic perspective?

SS - We are clearly in a new phase of our history. We’ve moved on from independence and recognition. Whoever is elected President has to focus on the economy. We need to do everything to make sure that people can live comfortably in Abkhazia. The good news is that Abkhazia has all the resources it needs to do this. The threat of war has gone, sanctions have gone, investors have appeared, local demand is growing. People are beginning to see a future in Abkhazia.

OC - A future, potentially, with Sergei Shamba as President... yet what Sergei Shamba actually stands for as distinct from his opponents is less clear. I read somewhere that you felt your politics don’t significantly differ from those of your main opponents in the forthcoming elections. This begs the question: why have you decided to put yourself forward? Why shouldn’t the population simply vote for Ankvab?

SS - Well, of course there are real differences between us; what I say is that our aims are the same. There is no political party or political line that would not say that its goal is independence, democracy, rule-of-law, growth and development. No one is for negotiating schemes with Georgia. Everyone is focused on the idea of absolute independence. I believe that Abkhazia should be a democratic government, with a multi-party system, with a market economy, with a free press. These are the same aims that everyone has.

OC - And where are the differences?

SS - Tactics. How to get there.

OC - What does that mean?

SS - I believe that Abkhazia should be a liberal, democratic country. There are other differences too.

OC - You talked about independence, and Abkhazia’s position today is rather different from what it was three years ago. You were Minister of Foreign Affairs throughout this time: before and after Russian recognition. Do you think Russia could ever live with a thoroughly independent Abkhazia? Do you share the concerns that many have, even within your own people, that Russia is in the process of absorbing Abkhazia?

SS - Opinions in our society have always varied and people have differing views on this. Personally, I’m very relaxed. I haven’t seen any signs from Russia that they want to absorb us. I don’t think Russia wants or needs this. We have a good mutual relationship and we defend each other’s interests. If there are issues of a territorial nature, well we can discuss them. Not in a sense of absorption or annexation, but in a sense of asking what interests they have here. It’s not as if association with Abkhazia has been in the direct interest of Russia. Their decision to recognise us back in 2008 put them in a very tricky situation internationally. Russia and Abkhazia have become strategic allies, and we’d naturally be inclined to take each other’s interests into account.

OC - So you are also very relaxed at the recent attempts to redraw the northern border?

SS - No. No one is about to agree to redrawing the borders. There was one specific issue that we still have to deal with. You see, when the Russian empire came to an end, there was a delimitation of borders between administrative regions, with a border being drawn along the river Pso. The problem was the river cut through a village, Aibka. Since its population was Russian, it was decided that Aibka would be considered part of Russian Federation. This was how it was right up to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Quite logically, our Russian partners wanted that to be reflected in current law.

"No one would seek to deny that we have a special relationship with Russia. We have common interests, stemming from the fact that only Russia has been willing to act in the interests of our security. Only Russia has been prepared to recognise our independence. "

Sergei Shamba

I’d just like to emphasise we are in a new stage of relations with Russia. We understand there is a need to reach agreements to regulate our new reality. Whether that be with respect to borders or property rights — remember that in Soviet times all our regions were very integrated — it gives rise to a number of issues. 

OC - One such issue, which has caused quite a bit of noise locally, is the decision to transfer the elite state dachas of Stalin, Gorbachev, Khrushchev and Beria to Russian hands...

SS - Many of these dachas originally belonged to Russian institutions - not Soviet institutions, note, but Russian institutions. So it’s natural for questions of this sort to arise. We don’t see Russia attempting to take anything away from us.

OC - You are described in some parts as the Kremlin’s preferred candidate. How do you react to such a suggestion? Why do you think observers say this of you?

SS - Well, there are various publications and some say I am pro-Western. They attack me for being the author of a multi-vector idea in foreign policy and so on. The point is I’m not pro-Western or pro-Russian. I am pro-Abkhazian. I have always fought for the interests of Abkhazia. And that is not just a matter of words: my entire biography demonstrates it. [Shamba was head of the Aidgylara People's Forum, which played a leading role in the campaign for Abkhaz independence - ed]

No one would seek to deny that we have a special relationship with Russia. We have common interests, stemming from the fact that only Russia has been willing to act in the interests of our security. Only Russia has been prepared to recognise our independence. None of this means I am not for friendly, normal relations with other countries as well.

OC - Does that include Georgia?

SS - Georgia has, unfortunately, itself cut off communication. We had a long period of negotiation with them, but this was before they decided to pass a law on “occupied territories”, limiting their contact with us until the so-called “occupying forces” leave Abkhazia. The problem is that we don’t see Russian forces as occupying. They are in Abkhazia as invited guests and a result of an inter-government agreement. By the way, the effect their arrival had on our country was quite amazing: almost immediately the locals put away their rifles and started to rebuild.

OC - Georgia doesn’t only see the politics of the problem in terms of territory, however. There are a mass of accompanying issues: refugees, the Gali question, and a lot of spilt blood ...

SS - Who spilt it?

OC - This, as I’m sure you realise, is a delicate issue for all sides -

SS - We are talking about events that happened in the not-too distant past. People can still remember the attempts to “Georgianise” Abkhazia [Stalin - Beria’s policy between 1937-53] because they happened within their lifetimes. Everyone understands that Georgia started the 1992-3 war. It is no surprise, by the way, that many politicians in Georgia, including some very influential ones, are now saying it is time to recognise Abkhazia.

OC - There were also some terrible things happening on the Abkhazian side after the initial Georgian assault in 1992. I’m referring in particular to the mass killingsof ethnic Georgians in Sukhum and Gagra. Is it not also right to recognise this?

SS - The objective position is that the Georgians brought in their troops, there were mass human rights violations, murders and so on. Then, when the Abkhazians drove out the Georgians, the exact opposite took place. But in such circumstances, you need to ask yourself: who started it? Who opened Pandora’s Box?

"Recognition is all a matter of time, political conjecture, sails and the way the wind blows."

Sergei Shamba

You know what Margaret Thatcher said about Kosovo? She said, yes, there were mass violations of human rights, murders and so on, but Milosevic should accept responsibility for them because he started it all. I agree:  people who start wars should be held responsible for them. Before they dream about hoisting their flags, they should have a think about the thousands of innocent civilians that will be killed in the process. Look at the situation Gaddafi got himself into. Who suffers? Innocent civilians. They are the ones to die first. It’s a clear rule of war. Civilians don’t have bullet-proof vests, they are in rags and slippers. Bombs fall on them.

OC - Your Georgian critics say that Abkhazia as a nation is weak  - not everyone has the language; Abkhazians have always been the minority and so on. How do you react to this?

SS - We’re building a civil society. We aren’t building a national government. We aren’t going to force everyone to speak Abkhazian, even though we want to preserve our language. I was in Ireland not so long ago: a marvellous country with a rich history, culture. But the vast majority do not know their language. With us, the situation is not quite so hopeless: the majority of our Abkhaz population speak Abkhazian better than Russian. Even so, we’re not trying to make a national government. We want a civil society. We’ve got no problems with the various nations that live here. We only ever had a problem with the Georgians, and that was because they were resettled here artificially. Even when they were resettled here, they were given a cordial welcome. It was only when they started to say that it was their land that things got difficult.

OC - What, do you sense, stands in the way of Europe recognising Abkhazia?

SS - The only things to stand in the way are subjective factors. If they were objective factors, Europe would recognise us. We have a stable government, a long history, a long battle for independence. Just subjective factors — “Georgia, are they on our side?” - “Yes”. “OK we’ll support Georgia”. “They’re against Russia?” - “Great, well we’ll support them”. And tomorrow things will be completely different. You shouldn’t forget that when Georgia was at war with us, she was the most devoted ally of Russia. We were then enemies of both countries. Abkhazians were not allowed to settle at the coast, they chased us away to the mountains. Recognition is all a matter of time, political conjecture, sails and the way the wind blows.

OC - And what if Russia, which is not in the most predicable situation politically, were to blow the other way?

SS - I can’t see that anything will change. Nor will anything change in Russia for that matter. Russia will always think of itself as a Great Power: it has the resources, territory, power. It couldn’t be any different. Before Russia recognised us, we were worried, sure we were. Russia could have sacrificed little Abkhazia in an attempt to bring Georgia into its sphere of influence. We wouldn’t have agreed, of course; it wouldn’t have meant the end of the conflict. But now, since Russia took the principled decision to recognise us, against international public opinion, she can’t afford to let us go. It would be too much damage to her prestige.

 


 

Alyksandr Ankvab: a no-nonsense politician and survivor of five
assassination attempts. Photo: Oliver Carroll

Alyksandr Ankvab

OC - What should Abkhazians expect from an Alyksandr Ankvab presidency? A continuation of Sergei Bagapsh’s policies? 

AA - Unquestionably. Continuation of his policies and a continued push to guarantee independence and stability. Abkhazia is a small country, but our small country has a lot of unrealised potential. I’m certain that in a matter of a couple of decades or so you will see the beauty of Abkhazia’s natural world reflected in the country’s internal well-being. By that, I mean a society in which the law works, and a society without crippling inequality. 

OC - I'm interested to know if you shared the general view among the local population that the gap between the bureaucrats and the people is increasing. And that corruption is now rife among bureaucrats ...

AA - You’ll find corruption anywhere where money is badly controlled. It is no coincidence that people have started to talk about it - they see that Russia has given Abkhazia considerable financial support and they aren’t sure that the Abkhazian government is ready to deal with it. And we do have our share of dishonest officials. If we are to counteract these pressures, or at least minimise them, we need to have proper monitoring agencies. We’ve just resolved, in parliament, to open an Accounts Chamber, which is just one of the levers we can use. When enough officials begin to get slaps on the wrist for wrongdoing, there will be less corruption and less desire to finger the people’s money.

OC - You talk about the Abkhazian Accounts Chamber. Not so long ago Sergei Stepashin, Chairman of the Russian Accounts Chamber, paid a visit to Abkhazia to run an audit on financial assistance Russia has provided to Abkhazia. His audit was not unreserved, but rather enigmatically he mentioned some 347 million roubles of missing cash, written off as “appreciation”...   

 AA - Let me explain a little. Many people have taken to speculating about it, and our opponents have, of course, had a field day. The point is that this 347 million was not money that people stole. What happened is that our accountancy wasn’t up to scratch. I can give you many examples, but take one: building works which went ahead although the cost estimate documentation wasn’t ready, but the money was transferred regardless. Here, you see, the money was being used in the right way, but when the Accounts Chamber specialist came to check, he could see the transfer, but no papers. So this is what writes this in his report.

"Abkhazia is crying out for a bit of German discipline, for order. This means every citizen needs to observe laws, and that begins with the president. Everything else will sort itself out. What we can’t have is the selective application of laws"

Alysandr Ankvab

OC - Some people have interpreted the report’s findings as an attempt to introduce leverage over the Abkhazian government ...

AA - No, no. The only thing I see is bad accountancy. Unfortunately, we have lost an awful lot of skills, very few specialists, you understand. We had a significant amount of money, we had projects to fund, and the small teams were simply not up to the task. So, for example, we had problems with mountain streams after heavy rainfall. The Bzyp river, if we didn’t do something about it, was about to wash away some 24 homes. There’s no way you’ll get the proper estimates ready in time. You need to put the 10 million roubles down immediately. Tomorrow is too late. But when the Accounts Chamber inspector arrives, according to his rules, this is officially an infringement of financial discipline. Which is what he will write in his report, even though no money has been stolen.

If we were to focus on the facts, then yes, there are also instances where money has been stolen. We’re investigating these, and I can assure you those guilty will be punished.

OC - They will be dismissed?

AA - Dismissed? They should be so lucky. No, I think the General Prosecutor might like to have a chat with them first.

OC - Of all the candidates running in the election, you are considered to be the most authoritarian, the strongman choice. Should civil society have anything to be worried about?

AA - Abkhazia has a constitution which contains all the information you could wish for about human rights. Dictatorship and tyranny are impossible. There is no way an Abkhazian leader would survive long in such a guise. But Abkhazia is crying out for a bit of German discipline, for order. This means every citizen needs to observe laws, and that begins with the president. Everything else will sort itself out. What we can’t have is the selective application of laws — “I’m the president and I can do as I like”, “I’m a minister and my children can do as they like”. Everyone has to be equal before the law. This is what a normal, civil society looks like. I’ve never, by the way, quite worked out exactly what a civil society is. A society is a society, and has been from the time of Rome and Ancient Greece. These were societies where people behaved in accepted ways and followed laws — sometimes unwritten, later written — and where transgressions were always punished severely.

OC - Yet on the other hand, civil, non-governmental society cannot exist without proper government distance. It cannot exist if politicians are bringing journalists to court for “reputational damage”, for example... 

AA - We’re not about to execute journalists, so you can relax on that front. Journalists, like other citizens, are protected by law. The law very clearly sets out their obligations, rights and responsibilities. These things work best when rights and responsibilities are recognised equally. If a journalist grounds himself in ethics, he will have no problems. If however, tries to use the media law to do as he wishes, and refuses to live up to his responsibilities later, saying “I’m a journalist”, well that is unacceptable.

"We’re in no hurry. We can get still access to the world through Russia and Russian civilisation. In an ideal world we would gain access to the world on our own terms and using our own passports, and not through an intermediary. But if that is not how it is meant to be today, then so be it. We will do things through Russia. We will develop together."

Alyksandr Ankvab

OC - To talk about Abkhazia’s relationship with Russia in more detail. Russia does not, it would be fair to say, feel entirely comfortable in a post-imperial world. Indeed, many of its citizens take the view that it would be no bad thing were she to expand further South. You don’t feel any danger that parts of the Russian elite are interesting in annexing Abkhazia in a more formal manner?

AA - What do you mean, annex Abkhazia? How? You think that Russia could annex Abkhazia and the world would not notice, would stay silent? No. Russia would never do this. If Russian servicemen are in Abkhazia, it is because we invited them here. It didn’t happen by accident. Why does no one talk about this? Why did none of the foreign diplomats we warned well before 2008 about Georgia preparing for war pay any attention to us?

OC - Without wishing to understate the role Saakashvili played in the lead up to the war, there are a number of versions of what happened 

AA - You can invent however many versions you want. But we have the facts. Saakashvili attacked South Ossetia. Saakhasvili was preparing to attack Abkhazia in exactly the same way. This is incontrovertible fact. You might not like it.

OC - There was the build-up of troops on both sides in the months leading up to this, there was the drone shooting in April and so on. The story is not simple

AA - Well, no, the story is not simple. We knew who we were dealing with. We were preparing for war. What else should we have done? We had to defend ourselves. Were we supposed to sit and wait for Saakashvili to attack us? We’d been through that one once already, in August 1992 [when Kitovani began military operations inside Abkhazia]. And, by the way, our dear European friends were also quiet about this. Perhaps our European leader friends didn’t study geography at school?

OC - Are you getting much feedback from your European colleagues? What does the “engagement but no recognition” strategy look like in practice? Do you get a sense Europe is looking to develop relations with Abkhazia? 

AA - We sense nothing because there is nothing: apart from words, there is a vacuum. I realise that all this talk is being paid for, but we need to move on from the talk to real action. We still can’t travel to Europe. We still can’t send our young people abroad to study in European universities. We still can’t go to Europe for medical care. There was one young boy we tried to send abroad to Europe for urgent treatment, but he was denied a visa. There are many examples of things like this. It is occasionally frustrating, though we are generally relaxed about the situation. We’re in no hurry. We can get still access to the world through Russia and Russian civilisation. In an ideal world we would gain access to the world on our own terms and using our own passports, and not through an intermediary. But if that is not how it is meant to be today, then so be it. We will do things through Russia. We will develop together. And no doubt America and Europe will continue to lecture us about democracy.

OC - Looking to the future, whatever way an independent Abkhazia turns, it will always have common interests with its neighbours: Russia, Europe, Turkey, Georgia. Would an Ankvab government take part in talks with Georgia in such a multi-lateral context?

AA - About what?

OC - About regional politics and partnerships, about peace?

AA - We’ve long offered them the arm of peace. We’ve offered them a peace agreement. We’ve asked them to sign a non-aggression treaty

OC - Could Abkhazia make a conciliatory gesture within such a process, for example to recognise the Georgian victims of the war? In the context of a very bloody past?

AA - No gestures are needed here, with all respect. What is needed is an acceptance of blame. It wasn’t us that attacked Georgia. Someone has to hold their hands up and say “we committed an act of aggression”. But I don’t see any brave men of that sort.

OC - There is, of course, another route, such as the one that was applied in South Africa not so long ago: reconciliation, understanding. It was, after all, a terrible war for all sides.

AA - With respect, there is nothing to talk about here. We mourn our own victims, and understand that there were victims on the other side too. The question you have to ask yourself is: who is to blame for this? Who is to blame?

 

About the author

Oliver Carroll is a former editor of oD Russia (2010-2014). He was a founder editor of Russian Esquire and has worked for a number of other print and online publications in Russia and the UK.