Abkhazia: Veterans Challenge President

A gathering of the Amtsakhara war veterans' movement promises to reshape Abkhaz politics.

Abkhazia: Veterans Challenge President

A gathering of the Amtsakhara war veterans' movement promises to reshape Abkhaz politics.

Abkhazia's increasingly powerful veterans movement, Amstakhara, has thrown down the gauntlet to the breakaway republic's leader, Vladislav Ardzinba, by urging him to step down.

The Amstakhara resolution poses the biggest-ever direct threat to Ardzinba, who has led the Abkhaz nationalist movement for more than a decade, and has until recently been considered virtually untouchable.

However, Ardzinba is in poor health, no longer appears in public and has handed over most of the day-to-day running of Abkhazia to his government. On July 2, he flew to Moscow for more medical treatment.

Eight days later, the extraordinary congress of Amstakhara, the largest political group in Abkhazia consisting of the veterans of the Abkhaz-Georgian war, officially convened to discuss the political situation in the republic. But few were in any doubt that they now had Ardzinba in their sights.

On the morning of July 10, Sukhum's philharmonic hall was packed as the congress opened. Anticipating a large turnout, the organisers had deployed powerful speakers around the building to relay the proceedings to the neighbourhood. As well as the war veterans, the forum was attended by the republic's political elite, including government ministers, parliamentary deputies and party leaders.

"Ardzinba will remain in the annals of Abkhaz history forever," declared General Vladimir Nachach-ogly, one of Amtsakhara's two co-chairmen. "He was at the head of the Abkhaz people during the hardest times, when our people achieved independence in a war with Georgia.

"But unfortunately, Ardzinba is very ill, and must leave. As war veterans, we will never demand his resignation. This is merely a proposal to the president to voluntarily divest himself of his powers."

A few years ago, Ardzinba enjoyed immense popularity in his country. The victory over the Georgians in 1993, that brought de facto independence to Abkhazia, made him the undisputed leader of the nation. At every party, people toasted their president after paying tribute to the Lord, and they really meant it.

But economic problems, government corruption and Ardzinba's own ill health have sapped his authority. Elected president by popular vote in 1999, he was last interviewed on television, speaking with difficulty, during the Kodori Gorge crisis of October 2001.

Ever since then, whenever footage of the president is broadcast on national television, his words are read by an announcer off-screen. The nature of Ardzinba's ailment has never been disclosed, but specialists suspect a problem affecting blood vessels in the brain.

Amtsakhara may prove a serious challenge for the sickly president, as it has already proved itself to be a powerful group. It was founded in 1999 as a non-political public veterans' group, and quickly became the main organisation for many - although not all - of those who fought in the 1992-93 Abkhaz-Georgian war.

A year later, the veterans' association reinvented itself as a political group - angering the president. In April, the veterans effectively forced Prime Minister Gennady Gagulia and his government to resign against the president's wishes. The debate about political reform then moved to the parliament, which now also began to stand up to Ardzinba.

The legislators soon passed a law setting out a new procedure for amending the constitution, which could curtail the president's powers. Ardzinba was furious - recalling his parliamentary envoy Marina Pilia, and forbidding government officials to appear in parliament.

The standoff between the two branches of government then brought the veterans back into the fray.

At the veterans' congress, historian Stanislav Lakoba - often called the ideologist of the Abkhaz nationalist cause - said to loud applause, "The country is in turmoil. Popular discontent is rising as executive authorities prove themselves unable to act constructively or make compromises."

Lakoba, who has been named as a possible Amtsakhara candidate in next October's presidential elections, said that Abkhazia was falling victim to a "creeping coup" and "the president must make the difficult but correct decision and resign".

However, not everyone however shares the view that Ardzinba should go. Several opposition groups, who are critical of the Abkhaz leader, nonetheless did not support the veterans' call.

Leonid Lakerbaia, the leader of Aitaira (Revival), Abkhazia's main opposition party said, "The republic is not yet ready for a change of leader. In our opinion, we should first amend the presidential election act and revise the line-up of the Central Electoral Board if we want the upcoming election to be a truly legitimate one.

"Whatever Ardzinba's faults, he led the nation during the Abkhaz-Georgian war. It is unethical to speak of his resignation as we approach the tenth anniversary of our war victory, celebrated on September 30."

And Adgur Basaria, a war veteran not affiliated with Amtsakhara, told IWPR that he accepted that the country needed a new president, but added, "Ardzinba is a symbol of our victory and independence. It would be wrong not to have him in office on the ten year anniversary - and I think he understands that he will have to leave shortly after that."

Ardzinba himself, who is now in Moscow, told the media that his early resignation was "out of the question".

"The presidential election in Abkhazia will be held as prescribed by the constitution, in October 2004. It is my duty as the head of state and guardian of constitutional order to ensure a legitimate change of leader," he said.

But parliamentary deputies are already discussing what mechanisms they could use to remove the president from office on health grounds. And, as if in anticipation of an imminent crisis, parliamentary speaker Nugzar Ashuba has cancelled all parliamentary holidays this year.

While Amtsakhara appears to be manoeuvring itself into a strong position, they lack a clear leader and their presidential candidate is unlikely to come from their own ranks.

But, along with Lakoba, who is backed by the majority of the movement's policymaking council, the names of former prime ministers Anri Djergenia and Sergei Bagapsh are being mentioned. As there are strong differences within Amtsakhara, it could end up backing two candidates rather than one.

Inal Khashig is co-editor of Panorama, IWPR's monthly Caucasus newspaper.

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