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Abkhazia Rivals Strike Deal

A last-minute compromise agreement spells repeat elections in the Black Sea republic.
By Inal Khashig

After two months of smouldering crisis in Abkhazia, an unexpected Russian-brokered agreement between the two opposing presidential candidates means that they will now run on a joint ticket in a new election in January.

The crisis that has bitterly divided the republic for two months was apparently settled after a new round of talks, despite a short-lived threat that disillusioned supporters of both candidates would engage in violence.

Opposition candidate Sergei Bagapsh had set December 6 for his inauguration as president, after he was declared the winner in the October 3 poll. But the officially-favoured candidate, former prime minister Raul Khajimba, disputed Bagapsh’s victory claim. Khajimba’s patron, outgoing president Vladislav Ardzinba, threatened not to leave office and Russia partly closed its border with Abkhazia.

At 4pm on the crucial day, the two rivals signed a written agreement ending the standoff. Ardzinba and current prime minister Nodar Khashba also signed the document, which sets out the terms of a deal mediated by two Russian officials, deputy speaker Sergei Baburin and deputy prosecutor general Vladimir Kolesnikov.

The agreement states that the results of the October 3 elections are frozen but not annulled, and a new poll is set for a date no later than January 13. Both sides agreed to remove armed supporters from Sukhum at the earliest opportunity, and withdraw from government buildings and the state television centre.

Should Khajimba break this agreement, the document stipulates that the election commission will once again declare Bagapsh winner. If Bagapsh violates the deal, on the other hand, there is a vaguely-worded formulation stating that as acting president and “guarantor of the constitution”, Ardzinba is entitled to take action.

At the same time, Moscow - which has been putting immense economic and political pressure on the Bagapsh team in recent days - agreed fully to reopen the Russian-Abkhaz border.

Russian president Vladimir Putin, visiting Turkey, immediately welcomed the agreement. In his first public comments on the crisis in Abkhazia he said, “We are sincerely interested in the resolution of these conflicts, as we want this to be a region of stability.”

He went on, “We do not want the impression to be created that one decision or another was taken under pressure from the Russian side, because if one side feels hard done by it will probably put the blame on Russia. We don’t need that.”

Moscow’s closure of Abkhazia’s northern border since December 2, accompanied by the non-payment of Russian pensions and the cutting of the railway link to Sukhum, had hit Abkhazia hard. Gennady Bukayev, an aide to the Russian prime minister, had called Bagapsh’s team “criminal”.

In the last week, prices had doubled and it was impossible for citizens of Abkhazia to take tangerines – the republic’s main export – to market in Russia.

A compromise agreement was first discussed on the evening of December 5. The idea that the two rivals could agree to work together was such a bolt from the blue that news of it almost triggered conflict, as angry followers of both candidates voiced recriminations at the concession.

“I’ve been asked by my supporters how much I was paid to compromise,” Bagapsh told a spontaneously-organised rally. “I understand that these were emotional complaints. The main reason I compromised was that I do not intend to come to power by shedding blood and then be the president of a divided people. We are one nation and we need to build this state together.”

When Khajimba went back to his campaign headquarters, he had to be protected by bodyguards from the wrath of his own supporters.

“Now it’s obvious that no one can be trusted,” said an angry Vladimir Nachach-ogly, co-leader of the veterans’ organisation Amtsakhara, who had been hoping to see Bagapsh inaugurated that day.

“Sergei Bagapsh is too trusting; he is being fooled by the Russian security agencies and Ardzinba. They are doing everything they can to stop the inauguration taking place as planned. The authorities are using this artificial compromise to win time and then finally break the will of the people. They won’t let him be president.”

On the other side, an elderly woman who backs Khajimba said, “We were told that the opposition leader were stooges of the West and Tbilisi, and now it turns out that we have to unite with them.

“Now I don’t understand who needed this circus.”

On December 6, five explosions went off in various parts of Sukhum. There were no casualties, but for a time the situation in the city threatened to degenerate into civil war. The streets filled up with up to a thousand armed supporters from each camp, and all offices and schools closed.

“Several men in camouflage carrying machine guns and sniper rifles climbed onto the roof of our house,” complained Irina Pospelova, who lives in a multi-storey apartment block in the centre of Sukhum. “I was frightened and rang the police, but they told me there was nothing they could do.”

The agreement almost broke down as the two camps wrangled over the date of the election, until a firm date – January 9 – was fixed.

The international community does not endorse the result of elections held in Abkhazia – which is not recognised as a sovereign state – but at the same time it wants to see a leader who enjoys local legitimacy.

Many details of the wider compromise still have to be worked out.

Former interior minister Alexander Ankvab, an early favourite in the presidential race who was struck from the ballot and then joined forces with Bagapsh, looks likely to become prime minister after a Bagapsh-Khajimba victory.

Bagapsh has said that his running-mate, historian Stanislav Lakoba, would receive a high post in any new administration.

Parliament is set to discuss constitutional changes to the role of vice-president, which until now has been a largely nominal position. It seems the new post will carry more weight, including authority over the security forces.

As Sergei Baburin explained the details of the agreement to Bagapsh’s supporters, a young woman wept quietly. “We tried to kill the slave within ourselves, but it seems we were only able to suppress it slightly,” she said.

Next week, Bagapsh flies to Moscow where he said he will have talks “at the highest level” on what happens next.

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

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