The results of Abkhazia’s recent de-facto presidential elections were somewhat predictable, given that the opposition, having seized power as a result of the revolution in May, practically governed the country already. On the other hand, their actions at the start of their election campaign had limited backing from the voters, and it was only as election day (24 August) approached that they gained more support.
It was clear from the beginning that there were two favourites in this election – Aslan Bzhania and Raul Khadjimba. Behind both candidates stood Abkhazia’s most influential political parties, consisting mostly of veterans of the Abkhaz-Georgian War. The Amtsakhara party, which had backed former president Aleksandr Ankvab, gave its support to Aslan Bzhania; and rumours therefore arose that Bzhania was in fact Ankvab’s successor. Meanwhile, Raul Khadjimba had the support of the Aruaa party.
A clear winner
The main question in this election was therefore whether the supporters of ousted President Alexander Ankvab could retain political power – an idea that persisted right up to the announcement of the preliminary results. According to Abkhazia’s Central Electoral Commission, Raul Khadjimba won with over 50 % of the vote, with his main opponent, former Security Service head Aslan Bzhania, receiving less than 14 %. As political analyst Sergey Markedonov has rightly observed, Khadjimba owed this clear victory to having served as both a member of the government and a member of the opposition; and crucially as the self-styled successor to the founding father of post-Soviet Abkhazia, Vladislav Ardzinba. But it still took him four attempts to become President – marking the end of his long rise to the top of Abkhazian politics.
'Moving forward with Raul.' Khadjimba's election campaign poster, 2009. RIA Novosti/Valeriy Melnikov
Raul Khadjimba won with over 50 % of the vote. His rival Aslan Bzhania, had less than 14 %.
Khadjimba’s team was also able to gain Moscow’s trust during the protests organised by the opposition earlier this year, promising a new, acceptable model for further Abkhazian-Russian co-operation. And although Russia did not become formally involved in Abkhazia’s political crisis, its silent presence was strongly felt from the very beginning of the confrontation – a striking example of this was a visit by two eminent Russian politicians during the crisis in May.
Russia’s influence was also felt during the election campaign. In their campaign speeches, practically all candidates emphasised greater economic and military integration with Russia; a possible closing of the border with Georgia; anti-corruption initiatives, and general economic development. The untouchable subject of Abkhazia’s future status was beyond debate, however – with all candidates supporting the preservation of its de-facto independence.
Khadjimba outdid his opponents with his emphasis on Abkhazia’s rising foreign debt – which now exceeds 2 billion roubles (£33m) – and on the fight against corruption. Even in the campaign for wider international recognition of Abkhazia’s de-facto independence, the opposition was ahead of the game, with acting president Valery Bganba appealing to Belarus and Kazakhstan to recognise Abkhazian independence on the eve of the elections.
It is obvious that the opposition would not have made such a bold gesture without the prior consent of Moscow. It is no less obvious that the appeal from Sukhumi was far from being a pleasant surprise for either Belarus president Alyaksander Lukashenka or his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev, for neither is prepared to share the costs of Russia’s political ambition; they are both involved in other international markets. There is an obvious conflict of interests between all the parties engaged in the Eurasian project, itself conceived as a response to threats posed by the West.
Two key questions
Two key questions arise from the result of this election. Firstly, how will Abkhazia’s change of government affect the landscape of domestic politics? Secondly, how will the process of integration with Russia – now declared a priority – impact on Sukhumi’s domestic and foreign policy?
Clearly, a significant number of Aleksandr Ankvab’s colleagues will be removed from government. At the same time, in order to avoid conflict, some form of consensus with supporters of the former president will have to be reached in certain areas.
Russia expects legislative reforms from Abkhazia.
Judging from declarations made by Raul Khadjimba during his election campaign, one of the new government’s first foreign policy initiatives will be to relax border controls with Russia. In this case, the border with Georgia along the Inguri River would be either closed or controls there significantly tightened. Meanwhile, statements made by Vitaly Gabnia, Khadjimba’s vice-presidential running mate, suggest the introduction of a new basis for financial relations with Moscow – financial aid will be replaced by direct investment, forming the framework for a new partnership. This in turn implies a relaxation of legislation concerning land ownership. The question is whether Khadjimba’s team will be able to achieve this in the face of Abkhazian public opinion, which supports the current ban on the acquisition of land by foreign citizens.
Raul Khadjimba is now Abkhazia's new de-facto President. Photo courtesy of abkhaziagov
In an interview with the Caucasus Times while still a presidential candidate, Khadjimba declared that Russia expects legislative reforms from Abkhazia, in order to provide effective protection for Russian investments, and monitoring of how they are used. ‘The Russian side is ready to continue helping us complete the agreed steps in our existing comprehensive plan,’ he began in his 29 May interview, ‘but at the same time it says that we should both have an interest in attracting investment to Abkhazia. These investments must be protected on our side by clearer legislation on the development of these relations, to enhance their potential effectiveness. Every investor is committed to achieving their goals and implementing their plans to the very end, and also to ensuring that their money is put to good use by the Abkhazian government. More effective monitoring is needed if we are to have more opportunities and better results.’
The Georgian question
Another priority that the new Abkhazian leadership must address is the question of issuing passports to the de-facto state’s ethnic Georgian population. The new president himself sees a resolution of this question in legislative reform that would regulate residency rights for foreign citizens. Ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia would be faced with a choice – either to continue living in Abkhazia as a foreign resident (while retaining their Georgian citizenship), or to restore their Abkhazian citizenship at the cost of renouncing the Georgian. Legislative reform, however, is only the start of resolving this issue; it is unclear how these laws can be implemented without diplomatic relations with Georgia. Furthermore, to rely just on open Georgian governmental sources such as social service and financial authorities, in order to establish whether an Abkhazian citizen also holds Georgian citizenship, does not seem an adequate basis on which to revoke somebody's passport.
It is unclear how the status of ethnic Georgians can be decided without diplomatic relations with Georgia.
The victorious opposition has inherited a complex web of problems. Its success was to a significant extent determined by the issues it chose to highlight during the electoral campaign. It will, however, be difficult for the Gabnia-Khadjimba partnership to move away from its pre-election agenda – having achieved a real change of power in the Republic, the Abkhazian opposition has created a difficult precedent for itself. Whatever their views of Aleksandr Ankvab, a significant part of the Abkhazian public saw the revolution in May as little more than a coup – a fact the new leadership would do well to remember.