Abkhaz Elite Signs Unity Pact

The president of Abkhazia and his recent political foes abandon hostilities for a display of national unity.

Abkhaz Elite Signs Unity Pact

The president of Abkhazia and his recent political foes abandon hostilities for a display of national unity.

Friday, 24 February, 2006
Abkhazia’s divided elite signed an unprecedented declaration last week committing them to display unity against what they said was a threat of aggression from the Georgian government.

President Sergei Bagapsh, Vice-President Raul Khajimba, Prime Minister Alexander Ankvab and Speaker of Parliament Nuzgar Ashuba were the first to put their names to the common declaration on February 16, affirming their desire to have the unrecognised republic, which seceded de facto from Georgia in 1993, recognised as an independent state.

A comprehensive list of public figures then added their signatures, including the heads of regional assemblies, representatives of religious and ethnic minorities and the heads of governmental and non-governmental organisations.

The initiative for this unprecedented common front came as Bagapsh celebrated his first year in power, after a bitterly fought presidential election campaign with Khajimba, who ultimately became his vice-president under a compromise deal. The idea for the document came from the opposition movement Forum for National Unity.

In an interview with IWPR on the eve of the signing of the document, the Abkhaz leader said he had devoted his first year in office to healing the wounds caused by the 2004 election struggle which brought Abkhazia to the brink of civil war.

“No one is asking anyone to love the president and I am not planning to go to the marriage bureau with anyone,” Bagapsh told IWPR. “I have my wife and we have been together for 30 years. But we should love our homeland and our people, and we should understand one thing – that any internal political discord will only lead to the weakening of Abkhaz statehood.

“So I think it is a good initiative to prepare a big letter to all political parties and movements in the republic. I am ready to sign up to it along with everyone - the vice-president, premier and speaker - because we need to show our people’s unity in the face of any possible turn of events from Georgia.”

Over the last month, Abkhazia has been in a state of anxiety over rumours that Tbilisi is planning a military offensive, an allegation that has been denied in Georgia. One report, citing unnamed Turkish sources, even named March 15 as the date for the supposed operation. The Abkhazian opposition newspaper Novy Den published a letter from veterans of the 1992-93 war claiming there was a plan to occupy the southern Gal region, which has a majority Georgian population.

During the 2004 elections, animosity between the supporters of the two rival candidates reached such a pitch that all problems - political, economic or social – began to be viewed in terms of “who voted for whom.” Even family life was affected, with a number of divorces recorded because of political differences.

The friction continued long after the election. Mysterious bomb-blasts targeting Abkhazia’s Armenian community in the last two months have heightened tensions and suspicions.

But the new agreement signals a rapprochement in the face of a perceived heightened threat from Georgia.

“Even against the background of the recent anti-Armenian provocations, it is clear that the confrontation between government and opposition is changing,” said Tamaz Ketsba, political analyst who heads the organisation Civic Initiative – Person of the Future.

Ketsba noted that whereas previously Bagapsh had hinted that the internal Abkhazia opposition was behind the attacks, now he was blaming Georgian security forces for them.

The mood at the signing ceremony in the presidential palace was unusually warm as recent rivals and foes dressed in their best suits, starched shirts and ties exchanged smiles and handshakes.

Although the ceremony was due to begin at 11 am, people began gathering much earlier. To reassure the public that this was not a behind-closed-doors political deal, no metal detector was installed at the door and there was virtually free access even although security guards could not identify everyone coming inside.

Those who came in either found their name-badges or were helped by presidential staff to make their own. As they took their places, people who just a few weeks ago held polar-opposite positions struck up polite conversations.

Opening the meeting, Bagapsh struck a graver note, warning against any moves by Georgia to try and change the peacekeeping system that has been in place since 1993. “No one except the Russians will carry out a peacekeeping operation on our land,” he said. “This is the united position of the multi-national people of Abkhazia and the leadership of the country.”

He went on to accuse the Georgian government of spreading “terror” in the southern Gal region (known as Gali by its Georgian population), which in the last month has seen an upsurge of violence which each side accuses the other of fomenting.

After the president’s speech, Oleg Damenia, one of the leaders of the pro-government political movement Aitaira, came onto the platform to read out the agreed communiqué.

The document referred to Georgia’s insistence on removing the Russian peacekeepers, as well as to the recent violence in Gal. It went on to say, “the possible recognition in the near future of Kosovo may create an international legal precedent for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. So the Georgian leadership will try to alter the situation in its favour, by the use of force, before the Kosovo’s independence is recognised.”

The document was then passed from hand to hand and everyone present signed their name.

The declarations has generally been welcomed in Abkhazia – at least no one in public life, politics or the media has spoken out against it.

“In the face of the threat of war, there should be no divisions,” said writer Nikolai Kutsnia. “We are the united Abkhaz people who have one big goal – the construction of an independent state.

Inal Khashig is co-editor of IWPR’s Caucasus newspaper Panorama and editor of the newspaper Chegemskaya Pravda in Abkhazia

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