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Abkhazia's Leadership Struggle

Contest to replace veteran leader Ardzinba heats up six months ahead of the vote.
By Inal Khashig

The creation of a new political alliance in Abkhazia with ties to Russia is heating up the contest to replace veteran leader Vladislav Ardzinba.


Ardzinba has led the Black Sea region almost unchallenged since it de facto seceded from Georgia in the 1992-93 war. However, he is seriously ill and has not appeared in public, except occasionally on television, for more than two years. Neither has he officially anointed a favourite to take over as president of the self-proclaimed state.


Although the presidential election is not until October 28, jockeying within the ruling elite is intensifying.


Last week, a powerful new movement emerged under the Russian name Yedinaya Abkhazia or United Abkhazia. All three of its leaders are presidential candidates: Sergei Shamba, the current foreign minister of the unrecognised state; Nodar Khashba, who is a senior official in Russia's emergencies ministries; and Sergei Bagapsh, a former prime minister.


The movement, which describes itself as centrist, has the support of around half the current parliament including its speaker Nugzar Ashuba. Two important Abkhaz businessmen, Beslan Butba and Zaur Mikvabia, have also given their backing.


The movement's name echoes Yedinaya Rossiya, or United Russia, the pro-Kremlin party that has given President Vladimir Putin uncontested control over parliament. The choice of name was no coincidence. "In Russia they have United Russia and by analogy we ought to have United Abkhazia here," said party member Davlet Pilia.


"The main aim of the organisation at this stage is to put forward a single candidate for president after consultation with various parties and movements and then, after the elections, to turn United Abkhazia into a strong political party," said former justice minister Batal Tagapua, a founding member.


The creation of a new movement from within the governing elite came as a surprise to the man most often talked of as the next leader of Abkhazia: the current prime minister and former defence minister Raul Khajimba. He only learned about United Abkhazia's founding congress two days before it was due to happen - and from journalists.


For Khajimba, who has been in post only a year and has been gradually gaining in authority, this was a major blow.


Despite being seen as young, energetic and uncorrupted, he is also strongly identified as the main representative of the governing regime and all its failings. He is further weakened by his failure to win Ardzinba's personal endorsement.


"It looks as though Khajimba's honesty is harming him - it does not give close relatives of the president any confidence that after the elections, their economic interests will be left untouched," said Vadim Smyr, a leading member of the opposition party Aitaira or Revival. "The family also don't trust Khajimba because of his biography, because he has been head of the State Security Service and the defence ministry."


There is speculation that Ardzinba's preferred candidate would be the man Khajimba replaced as prime minister, Gennady Gagulia.


But United Abkhazia has problems of its own in agreeing on a single candidate. Current laws dictate that a candidate for president must have been resident in Abkhazia for five years, which bars one of its prominent figures, Nodar Khashba, from taking part.


Khashba used the opening congress to make a scarcely-veiled bid for the restriction to be lifted, saying that the Abkhaz living in Abkhazia should not be divided from those abroad.


"Even though I've lived in Moscow for the past eight years I still don't feel myself to be a Muscovite and I have never stopped thinking about Abkhazia and our people," Khasbha said. "When for example chlorine is needed to chlorinate the water in the Sukhum water system, for some reason it's me who gets it delivered, even though it's a long time since I was mayor of Sukhum."


Other members of United Abkhazia fear that lifting the residency requirement might allow parts of the Russian elite or other outside forces to push their own candidate.


"There is no guarantee that because of our uncertain position in the world, some famous world foundations won't want to take part in the elections. And there is a risk that they could use certain members of the diaspora to do this," Batal Tapagua said.


"It's a big open question whether these foundations want to see a free and independent Abkhazia."


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


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