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

Abkhaz Premier Escapes With His Life

Proof that the powerful new head of the Abkhaz government has many enemies.
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The new government had not been even been formed in Abkhazia when an attempt was made to kill the prime minister.


The shooting took place on the evening of February 28 at around 1030 pm, when the new prime minister, Alexander Ankvab, was travelling from work to his home in Gudauta, 40 km north of the capital Sukhum.


Before setting off, he switched cars and got into the vehicle of deputy prime minister Leonid Lakerbaia since both were going the same way. His own car had no one but the driver in it.


As the two cars were driving away from the capital, the prime minister’s vehicle came under automatic fire near the village of Achadar.


When the shooting started, the other car raced ahead and swerved round a bend in the road to escape. Seventeen bullet holes were later found in the prime minister’s Volga, which looked identical to Lakerbaia’s car, but the driver escaped unharmed. Ankvab had no bodyguards with him, having refused to use them on principle.


The following morning, the newly elected president of the unrecognised republic Sergei Bagapsh called an emergency meeting with the heads of the security forces to discuss the incident. He rejected speculation that the attack might have been politically motivated and denied there was a split in the new Abkhaz leadership, which was formed out of two rival groups which fought last year’s election.


“We are working together harmoniously,” Bagapsh said. “I am ruling out a political motive for the attack on the prime minister. I am convinced that the motive for this crime was linked to the criminal world. We have stepped on the toes of people who have been making dirty money, and this is their reaction to the steps we have taken against them. But we will not give in.”


Ankvab himself was less categorical, saying he thought it possible that the attack was a politically-motivated act of retaliation.


Alexander Ankvab, who became prime minister two weeks ago, is popular in Abkhazia for the tough stance he took against crime when he was interior minister in the Nineties. In 1994, former Abkhaz president Vladislav Ardzinba dismissed Ankvab, and he went to Moscow and became a businessman. In 2000, he set up the republic’s first opposition movement, called Aitaira (Revival).


The first free elections for the post of president held last year turned into a four- month battle that split the republic in half. Ankvab was barred from running in the October ballot, and threw his weight behind Bagapsh, the main opposition candidate.


Protests by Bagapsh supporters against victory claims by official candidate Raul Khajimba led to a prolonged dispute that was only resolved when the two men agreed to a repeat election in January, in which the winner would become president and the loser vice-president.


The December compromise stipulated that if Bagapsh won, Khajimba would have the right to appoint the foreign minister and heads of the security forces, and his supporters would get 40 per cent of posts in the new government.


Many Bagapsh supporters suspected supporters of the outgoing Ardzinba regime of trying to sabotage the elections by organising a boycott that would invalidate the poll.


Since the January election, there have been signs that relations between the president and his deputy are tense. In defiance of the election pact, Bagapsh has appointed his own people to key posts in the interior ministry and the customs service, and Khajimba has complained this is breach of promise.


The assassination attempt against the prime minister took place against the backdrop of this complex, continuing political struggle.


The law-enforcement agencies have not yet said who they believe was behind the attack.


Ankvab is a man with many political enemies. In the past he has frequently been labelled a traitor by supporters of the Ardzinba administration.


It is also possible that the attack was economically motivated. Both during and since the elections, Ankvab has said he intends to review rental and sale agreements that the previous administration signed for tourist resorts, which are Abkhazia’s main source of income. There are many accusations that expensive resorts were sold off to political insiders at rock-bottom prices. The prime minister has also declared he intends to crack down on the black-market trade in timber and scrap metal.


“Ankvab is extremely inconvenient for many people who felt free and easy under the old regime,” said Timur Ketsba, a lawyer who heads the non-government Foundation for Citizens’ Initiative and the Future of Humankind.


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