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Abkhazia Struggle Intensifies

Political shock waves continue after the murder of an Abkhaz opposition leader.
By Inal Khashig

Abkhazia’s foreign minister Sergei Shamba has resigned and called on the rest of the government to do so following the assassination of a leading opposition figure less than four months before presidential elections are due in the unrecognised republic.

Edinaya Abkhazia or “United Abkhazia,” the political movement of which Shamba is one of three co-leaders, made the decision to merge with Amtsakhara – a veterans’ organisation which has become an important vehicle for political opposition – following Shamba’s resignation and the murder of Garri Aiba, one of Amtsakhara’s leaders. (For more on Edinaya Abkhazia, see Abkhazia’s Leadership Struggle, CRS 226, April 8 2004.)

Aiba was murdered on June 9 as he was driving out of the courtyard of his house with his ten-year-old daughter. Fifty metres down the road, his car came under fire from an abandoned student hostel. Aiba jumped out of his car to deflect the shooting from his daughter, and was badly wounded. He died later in hospital.

Aiba headed Abkhazia’s anti-aircraft defences during the Georgian-Abkhazian war of 1992-93 and was mayor of the capital Sukhum from 1995 to 2000. He was one of the leaders of Amtsakhara, which over the past year has been calling for the resignation of Abkhaz president Vladislav Ardzinba.

His death has shocked Abkhaz society. It follows the killing of two other Amtsakhara members, one in Moscow and one in Sukhum, over the past eighteen months and an attempt to blow up their offices last year.

The interior ministry in Abkhazia says it is looking at four possible theories why Aiba was murdered, but declined to say what they were as its investigation was still under way.

Few believe that Aiba, who had no business links, was murdered for commercial reasons and most think that it was a politically motivated killing.

Abkhazia has had a tense year, both following Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” last November and because of the continuing poor health of its leader Vladislav Ardzinba, who has been absent from public life for three years. It is still far from clear who will replace him in October.

Shamba, a historian who is one of the leading ideologues of the unrecognised republic, resigned on June 15. “Over seven years I believe I have honestly carried out the duties set to me,” he said in a letter of resignation to the president. “However, the public discontent caused by the government’s inability to perform its primary function – guaranteeing the security of its citizens – makes it impossible for me to stay in the cabinet of ministers any longer.”

The head of Abkhazia’s security service, Givi Agrba, also announced he was stepping down, but he may stay in post if his resignation is not accepted by Ardzinba.

The day after Shamba’s resignation letter, Edinaya Abkhazia and Amtsakhara held a joint meeting where their two organisations merged and called on the whole government to step down.

“Today the state is being ruled virtually single-handedly by security officials, and yet there’s no order here,” said Sergei Bagapsh, one of the leaders of Edinaya Abkhazia. “If power was in the hands of agricultural scientists and they were of the same standard, we’d all die of hunger.”

Bagapsh – a former prime minister of Abkhazi – is, like Shamba, a potential candidate for president in the October elections. Other politicians based in Russia have been barred from running for the post by the new electoral law which requires all candidates to be resident in Abkhazia.

Current prime minister Raul Khajimba – another likely presidential candidate – declined an invitation to attend the meeting. Speaking on television the same evening, he described what was going on as “a symptom of a struggle for presidential power”.

Khajimba made it clear he did not intend to heed calls for him to resign, saying, “The actions of certain political forces show that they are interested in deepening the crisis and exacerbating the divisions in society, as they believe it is the only way they can come to power. This position is extremely destructive and poses a real threat to the existence of our state and the security of its citizens.”

Shamba, taking a relaxed view of Khajimba’s refusal to go, told IWPR, “We are not making an ultimatum on the issue of the government’s resignation. We just declared that in these circumstances decent people, wise and responsible politicians, should resign of their own accord, no more than that. All other questions are simply moral and ethical ones.”

Khajimba, a former defence minister, is now the favourite to be the official candidate in the elections. His position was strengthened by Ardzinba’s decision to sack the head of his presidential administration, Gennady Gagulia. The local press has been writing about how Gagulia, another former prime minister, had set up what amounted to a “parallel government”.

Supporters of Khajimba, who have formed a movement named Akhyatsa, say that his record as prime minister has boosted Abkhazia because of increased cooperation with Russia. Many Abkhaz now have Russian passports and pensions, and transit across the River Psou into Russia has become easier.

Shamba said the gains claimed by the current administration are simply “positive trends which the government wants to ascribe to itself”.

He noted that exports had in fact fallen, while imports had risen, saying, “As a matter of fact, that is the main economic indicator, and it means money is being laundered and the economy is ceasing to work properly, although in theory things should be the other way round because the situation is better at the frontier.

“We are always travelling to Russia to ask for fish, when we should be asking for a fishing rod.”

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

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