Abkhazia's Anti-Corruption Drive
The Abkhazian leader Sergei Bagapsh has broken a longstanding taboo by declaring war on corrupt officials.
Bagapsh, president of the unrecognised republic since 2004, said he intended to fight corruption in the upper echelons of power. In his annual presidential address on May 30, he said that the chief objective of the government will be to tighten control over expenditure of money from the budget.
His public statements follow a scandal which cost the mayor and deputy mayor of the Abkhaz capital Sukhum their jobs.
There is speculation that the crackdown was forced on Bagapsh, who was away from Abkhazia when the scandal broke.
In the almost 15 years since Abkhazia broke away from Georgian rule and became de facto independent, the issue of corruption and the prohibitions contained in the criminal code have become little more than decorative anachronisms left over from Soviet times.
Top officials waved the problem away by proclaiming that there is no corruption in Abkhazia. The official statistics supported this view, as no official was ever put on trial on corruption charges.
Now things are beginning to change. The latest drive began with a routine audit carried out by the housing office of the department that deals with economic crimes, part of the Sukhum mayor’s office.
The conclusions came as a bombshell, with anti-corruption officers reporting that of the 24 million roubles (925,000 US dollars) the city authorities spent on household repairs in 2006, one third of the money was simply stolen.
Some of the theft was very straightforward. For example, official records show that a Sukhum apartment block was given a new roof, which was news to the residents, who have not seen any such structure. In another case, housing officials allocated money to a building that does not even exist.
Other scams were more sophisticated. For instance, someone would be awarded a sum of money in welfare benefits, but would only receive only 10 per cent, the remainder disappearing into a bureaucrat’s pocket.
“The checks showed that in fact, many categories of those on benefits – war invalids, the families of those who died in the war, families with many children - received financial assistance from the mayor’s office,” said a source in the investigation team who asked not to be named. “The level of assistance never exceeded 20,000 roubles [770 dollars]. But at the same time, people who did not fall into these needy categories received sums ten times bigger than that, which naturally aroused our suspicions.”
On May 2, mayor Astamur Adleiba and his first deputy Boris Achba, the head of the city’s finance department Konstantin Tuzhba and the head of the housing department David Jinjolia, were all fired.
All are now facing criminal charges that range from abuse of their official positions and misuse of public funds to large-scale embezzlement of government assets.
In an unprecedented move for Abkhazia, both Achba and Tuchba were held in detention and then released after agreeing to pay large sums of money, presumably as compensation. Both men face long jail sentences if they are convicted.
Speculation is intense about who initiated this anti-corruption drive. The checks began in February but the results were not made public until the end of April, when compromising material on the suspects was handed to independent local media.
At the time, Bagapsh was undergoing treatment in a Moscow clinic, which has led many to believe that he was not behind the campaign.
Both Adleiba and Achba had been close to Bagapsh. The mayor won a renewed vote of confidence from the president following local elections in February, while Achba had put in a titanic effort to ensure that pro-presidential politicians came out top in Sukhum in the March parliamentary election.
However, when Bagapsh returned home at the beginning of May, the scandal had already reached such a pitch that he had no option but to sack the officials and sanction their prosecution.
Nonetheless the Abkhaz leader kept silent for two weeks, generating talk of two different versions of events.
One was that the crackdown was initiated by Abkhaz vice-president Raul Khajimba, Bagapsh’s opponent in the 2004 election and now the unofficial leader of the opposition. Khajimba has certainly benefited from the scandal, which reflected very poorly on his political adversaries.
The other explanation is that the case initiated by Prime Minister Alexander Ankvab to boost his popularity. In 2004, Ankvab was a leading candidate to replace former president Vladislav Ardzinba, to whom he was fiercely opposed. Ankvab had the reputation of being an implacable fighter against corruption, and declared that when he came to power, corrupt bureaucrats would be exchanging their offices for “prison cells with a view of the sea”.
However, Ankvab was barred from standing in the presidential election on the grounds that he did not fulfil residency requirements. He therefore teamed up with the other main opposition candidate, Bagapsh, and eventually emerged as his prime minister.
The anti-corruption drive Ankvab promised never materialised, and as a result he has lost much of his standing, even though analysts say that he still harbours presidential ambitions.
Bagapsh eventually broke silence when he was introducing the new mayor, Alyas Labakhua, to his staff.
“I have warned more than once that everyone without exception is responsible for fulfilling the duties required of him, but the city administration committed serious infringements of financial discipline and misused budget funds,” said Bagapsh. “In other words, a crime was committed.”
The Abkhaz leader appeared genuinely angry at what had occurred, saying, “those who carried out these vile acts in the administration sold out all of us - me above all”.
He then promised a new round of checks in all regional administrations and public services. There are already reports that evidence of abuses has been found in the Ochamchira region.
The presidential administration itself is also being investigated.
“It is no longer possible to tolerate this situation,” Bagapsh warned. “People are tired of dishonest officials. So everyone has to understand that punishment under criminal law will follow any crime, no matter who commits it.”
Inal Khashig is editor of Chegemskaya Pravda newspaper in Abkhazia and co-editor of IWPR’s Caucasus newspaper Panorama.