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

Abkhazia Poll Passions Rise

All sides want independence from Georgia, but have their differences over domestic policy.
By Inal Khashig
In the final week before parliamentary elections take place in Abkhazia, tempers have boiled over, with the opposition demanding a public apology from the leader of the breakaway republic Sergei Bagapsh.



On February 26, 19 opposition candidates for the March 4 poll called a press conference in which they accused Bagapsh of gross interference in the electoral process and trying to discredit members of the opposition.



They were responding to a television appearance by Bagapsh the day before in which he was responding to questions sent into the studio and criticised opposition politicians.



Abkhazia’s parliamentary elections are not recognised by the international community that still regards the region as being de jure part of Georgia, from which it broke away after the conflict of 1992-3.



All sides in the election are in agreement with Abkhazia’s ambitions to break from Georgia and become independent. However, there are significant differences on domestic policy.



Bagapsh spent only five minutes of the two-hour live television session discussing the forthcoming parliamentary elections but his comments on this issue detonated a furious row.



The de facto president confessed that he had tried to persuade leading opposition politician and former defence minister of Abkhazia Vladimir Arshba, one of the main figures in the Forum for National Unity movement, not to stand for election in the Sukhum No. 7 constituency, but to choose another district instead.



Bagapsh justified this by saying that the constituency in question “had always been considered Russian” - or in other words reserved for an ethic Russian.



National representation is a highly sensitive issue in Abkhazia. There is nothing in the legislation of the republic which positively discriminates in favour of certain ethnic groups, but since the war with Georgia ended in 1993, there has been an informal agreement amongst the ruling elite according to which certain constituencies in parliament are set aside for Russians, Armenians and Georgians and ethnic Abkhaz are encouraged not to stand there.



“My request was dictated exclusively by state interests,” said Bagapsh. “We can’t have a situation in which our parliament remains without representatives of national minorities, that would lead to big problems in the future.



“Arshba did not want to withdraw and now he is trying to stir up society by making all sorts of statements. The police have detained one of his closest aides running around with a weapon in his hand threatening voters. But I won’t allow them to cause disorder.”



Bagapsh also hit out at several other opposition candidates in the election, accusing one of lying and another of not paying his taxes.



This was an unusually outspoken performance by Bagapsh. He has had a reputation for restraint and consensus since he was elected leader at the end of 2004 after a bitterly contested poll with Raul Khajimba, who finally became his vice-president under a compromise deal.



“We should turn over a new leaf,” Bagapsh famously said, on taking office as he attempted to heal the wounds caused by the vitriolic election battle in which Abkhaz society became divided between Bagapshists and Khajimbists.



The Khajimbists, the opposition, had more support from Moscow and were closely associated with former Abkhaz leader Vladislav Ardzinba. They were accused by their opponents of not giving enough support to Abkhazia’s ethnic minorities.



Up until now, the two men whose supporters had clashed have been conciliatory. Khajimba himself has remained silent and not commented on the parliamentary election at all.



For his part, Bagapsh’s tolerant attitude towards his former opponents was such that many Abkhaz had jokingly called him “the chief Khajimbist”.



However, Bagapsh’s silence appears to have ended and the old conflict has again come out into the open.



The angry opposition candidates have appealed to the general prosecutor Safarbei Mikanba to clarify what Bagapsh said and demanded an apology from the president himself to “the candidates he insulted and the people of Abkhazia.”



“I personally believed that the new administration that came to power in the country would turn over a new leaf and would not repeat the mistakes of the previous administration but inertia in their thinking and a lack of flexibility suggest that that the new people are stepping on the same rake,” said Vladimir Arshba.



With only a few days before polling day, both pro-government and opposition parties have been stepping up their rhetoric in their fight for the republic’s 35-seat parliament.



The number of candidates has been falling steadily as both sides seek to optimise their chances of success and encourage candidates to step aside, who might split their share of the vote.



The opposition is hoping to use parliament as an arena with which to challenge the president.



“If in the opposition gets control of the next parliament, it’s quite possible that they will use the support of several independent deputies to raise the question of bringing in constitutional amendments that will redistribute power between the executive and the legislature in favour of parliament,” said Tamaz Ketsba, who heads the non-governmental organisation Civic Initiative and Person of the Future.



Abkhazia currently has a presidential form of government in which the president appoints the government without having to seek the approval of parliament.



The election is also important for the opposition, as it will probably determine who becomes its new leader.



Khajimba has remained silent and cannot criticise the administration of which he is part.



So it is expected that the main challenger to Bagapsh in the next presidential elections will emerge from amongst the opposition deputies in the coming parliament.



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

More IWPR's Global Voices