Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Abkhaz Contender Struck From Ballot

An opposition candidate is barred from Abkhazia’s presidential race while Moscow backs the prime minister.
By Inal Khashig

One of the leading contenders in the leadership race in Abkhazia has been barred from standing just a month before polling day.

Alexander Ankvab was prevented from standing by Abkhazia’s central election commission when it met on September 2, the last day on which candidates could register for the October 3 poll.

Ankvab was Abkhazia’s interior minister during the Georgian-Abkhaz war of 1992-93 and is now a successful businessman. Over the past 10 years, he has been the most prominent opponent of Vladislav Ardzinba, president of the unrecognised republic.

He has kept two homes throughout this period – one in Moscow where he runs his business, the other in Abkhazia where he has carried out a series of charitable projects, including funding the reconstruction of village schools, road repairs, book printing and support for numerous Abkhaz folklore groups.

His charitable work and his reputation as someone able to crack down on crime and corruption have won him wide popularity in his homeland. His popularity has increased in the last three years, as a result of President Ardzinba’s illness and consequent disappearance from public life.

Poor health is preventing Ardzinba from running for re-election, and he is backing acting prime minister Raul Khajimba instead. However, Khajimba is not currently the favourite. He is not as popular as either Ankvab or his other main rival, Sergei Bagapsh, head of the republic’s energy company and leader of the opposition United Abkhazia–Amtsakhara alliance.

However, after a seven-hour debate, electoral commission members decided by a majority vote not to register Ankvab, maintaining that he had not lived in Abkhazia for the last five years and thus did not fulfil the residency requirement for presidential candidates.

The electoral commission also cited “Mr Ankvab’s refusal to sit a full language test to evaluate his command of the state language of the Abkhaz Republic”. This test amounted to a fully-fledged examination in the Abkhaz language.

Ankvab had earlier asserted that the election body had exceeded its powers by trying to set him a test. “Language tests have not been approved by parliament, so all forms of tests suggested by the central election commission are illegal,” he said.

Ankvab nevertheless consented to spend more than two hours with members of a special commission set up to test candidates’ linguistic proficiency. He spoke with them in Abkhaz but eventually refused to sit the test. As a result, the language commission came up with two mutually contradictory conclusions, saying both that the candidate had an excellent command of Abkhaz, but that it was not in a position to assess his language skills because he had refused to be tested. Several days later, it ruled that Ankvab’s command of Abkhaz was adequate - but the electoral commission still insisted that he had to take the test.

According to parliament’s interpretation of the residency requirement, presidential candidates must have lived in the country for a minimum of 183 days out of each of the last five years. Yet in present-day Abkhazia, where people travel freely to and from Russia and are not officially registered, it is impossible to determine how long someone has spent living there.

Central electoral commission chairman Sergei Smyr said the decisive factor had been a document from the Russian tax authorities, saying that Ankvab had paid all his taxes on time.

Leonid Lakerbaia, who leads the opposition party Aitara, argued this was insufficient proof against Ankvab. “It isn’t necessary to stay in Russia to be a diligent taxpayer, you can easily stay in Abkhazia,” he argued. “The electoral commission’s decision did not surprise us. Long before the campaign started, it received a directive from above to get rid of Ankvab, whatever the cost. They have simply complied with that order.”

Instead of organising a protest, Ankvab appealed to Abkhazia’s Supreme Court, which had yet to issue a ruling when this report was published.

Without Ankvab out of the way, Abkhazia now has six candidates for president: acting vice-president Valery Arshba, prime minister Khajimba, Sergei Bagapsh, former prime minister Anri Jergenia, former foreign minister Sergei Shamba and the leader of the People’s Party, Yakub Lakoba.

Khajimba and Bagapsh lead the field. Khajimba’s advantage lies in the support of Ardzinba and the Russian authorities.

On August 29, he held a hour-long meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea town of Dagomys, which was reported on television. The meeting was ostensibly about “cooperation between Russian and Abkhaz veterans’ organisations”, but it was widely seen as an official endorsement of Khajimba. At the same time, if Moscow pushes its support for him too hard, many believe it could backfire with the public in Abkhazia.

The removal of Ankvab from the contest has strengthened Bagapsh’s hand. Sources at the latter’s campaign headquarters say talks between the two men are under way, and Ankvab will be offered the post of prime minister in return for supporting Bagapsh’s presidential bid.

Inal Khashig is co-editor of IWPR’s Caucasus newspaper Panorama in Abkhazia.

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