Abkhaz Election Going Ahead Despite Attack on President
The authorities in Abkhazia have pledged not to allow an assassination attempt against President Alexander Ankvab derail preparations for a parliamentary election due on March 10. So far, though, they are no closer to making any arrests.
In the February 22 attack, a roadside bomb placed on the route between Sukhum and Gudauta went off as Ankvab’s car passed by, and a number of assailants then opened fire from automatic weapons and a grenade launcher.
One bodyguard died on the spot and another later in hospital, but the president was unharmed.
It is the sixth assassination attempt in just seven years targeting Ankvab, who was previously prime minister and vice-president and was elected president in August after the incumbent leader Sergei Bagapsh died at the end of May.
No one has been convicted for these previous attacks.
Abkhazia broke free of Georgian control in the early 1990s and is recognised as independent by neighbouring Russia.
The motive for the latest attack on Ankvab remains unclear. He has told journalists that he suspects mafia groups were behind it. The consensus among local analysts seems to be that the source is internal, perhaps connected to Ankvab’s anti-corruption promises or to his criticism of the police force.
The speaker of parliament, Nugzar Ashuba, told an emergency meeting of the Security Council directly after the attack that whatever the explanation, Abkhazia could not tolerate such a challenge to state authority.
“We were victorious in the war [against Georgia], and we must defeat criminals. We don’t have another option,” he said.
On February 29, Ankvab pledged not to allow the government to be paralysed by the threat.
“We will stand up to threats resolutely, but only a systematic and comprehensive approach can change things,” he said. “I am personally taking charge of demanding that the necessary steps are taken.”
While the parliamentary election will go ahead as planned, commentators are sceptical that the ballot will lead to reform, so the system that produced this latest bout of violence will endure.
Raul Khajimba, the leader of the opposition Forum of Abkhazian National Unity who lost last year’s presidential election to Ankvab, said the attack was a natural consequence he had warned about during the campaign.
“We said that the system of administration is not as it should be, and that the law-enforcement agencies are not performing as they should,” he said. “No one is saying that all these trends started only yesterday [but] we must change something in the way we live. We keep on stepping on the same rakes.”
Critics of the present political system in Abkhazia say part of the problem is that too much power is concentrated in the hands of the president.
Alkhas Tkhagushev, a member of the Civic Chamber, a grouping of public figures, said the government should seriously consider structural reform in which more powers would be transferred from the executive to parliament.
“Parliament currently has seriously restricted powers. We can’t go on living in a situation where too much depends on a single person,” he said.
The March 10 election will be the first since Moscow recognised Abkhazian independence in 2008, in the wake of the brief Russian-Georgian conflict over South Ossetia.
A record 150 candidates are standing for the 35 seats in the legislature. Eight out of ten are Abkhaz, although the ethnic group accounts for less than half of the 250,000 people living in the republic. Political parties including the governing United Abkhazia and Khajimba’s National Forum have nominated 35 of the candidates, while the rest are standing as independents.
Leila Tania, a political analyst who heads the Civil Initiative and Person of the Future fund, sees the multiplicity of candidates as a reflection of a “higher standard of political culture in our society”.
“At this stage in the election campaign, we see real competition from different political forces,” she said.
Tania expressed concern that the Ankvab administration might get an unfair advantage in the election by exploiting its power and access to resources.
However, Inal Khashig, editor of Chegemskaya Pravda, an independent newspaper in Sukhum, pointed out that in any case, the way parliament worked at the moment meant that the president would always get his way, however many opposition members were elected.
“The current first-past-the-post system outlived its usefulness long ago,” he said. “If all 35 parliamentary seats were taken by opposition figures, then within a short period only a handful of them would still sticking to their original positions. One might say that all the others would have become pro-government.”
Khashig said the March election would prove beyond doubt how much the electoral system needed to be reformed.
“If you look at the list of candidates standing for election, then it’s practically written on many of their foreheads that they are representing their own personal interests. Are they really going to parliament in order to get involved in drafting laws for the good of the country?” he asked.
“I therefore have no illusions about the next parliament. I think it’s long been overdue to move to a new voting system, maybe using party lists alone, or else a mix…. I hope this is the last election we hold using this [first-past-the-post] system.”
Anaid Gogoryan is an IWPR-trained journalist and works for Chegemskaya Pravda newspaper.