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Few Changes Expected From New Abkhaz Leader

President Alexander Ankvab likely to seek continuity, though some fear more authoritarian style.
By Anaid Gogoryan

After Abkhazia elected its third leader since declaring independence from Georgia, analysts said they did not anticipate major policy changes, despite incoming president Alexander Ankvab’s promise to tackle corruption.

The August 26 ballot was called after the incumbent president, Sergei Bagapsh, died suddenly at the end of May. Ankvab, who was vice-president under Bagapsh, won with 55 per cent of the vote, while former prime minister Sergei Shamba came second with 21 per cent.

The third-placed candidate, Raul Khajimba, who got just under 20 per cent, alleged that the results were fraudulent. However, there was no repetition of the protests that followed his election defeat by Bagapsh in 2004.

“Mercifully, there were no tensions or arguments after the election,” Irakli Khintba, a political analyst and lecturer at the Abkhazian State University, said. “Ankvab’s victory was an impressive one, and no significant violations were recorded, so it wouldn’t be sensible to contest the result.”

Ankvab is a well-known veteran politician, and analysts are reading his win, with a high turnout of almost 72 per cent, as a vote of confidence in his pledges of continuity from the policies pursued by his predecessor Bagapsh followed.

He has positioned himself as a tough leader, and this has caused some observers to worry that he might erode the democratic gains made in three relatively free elections. When he was prime minister – a post he held from 2005 to 2010 – journalists were not allowed to enter the government’s offices unless they worked for state-run media.

At his first press conference, a day after the election, Ankvab said, “There will be no dictatorship in Abkhazia, I stress this. But Abkhazian society does not want weak, unprincipled leaders.”

The election results were dismissed by Georgia and its western allies, none of which recognises Abkhazia as a separate state. Washington agrees with Georgia’s description of Abkhazia as “Russian-occupied”.

By contrast, the election was hailed in Moscow, where the government was the first to recognise Abkhazia following the 2008 Russian-Georgian war.

Maxim Gunjia, who is to remain foreign minister under Ankvab, promised to carry on efforts to persuade other countries to recognise Abkhazian independence. Apart from Russia, the only ones that do so now are Nicaragua, Venezuela, and the Pacific states of Nauru and Vanuatu.

Gunjia would not be drawn on the question of whether others might soon join them, saying, “If I tell you now and it gets published, the next day the State Department or European Union institutions will start pressuring those countries not to recognise Abkhazia”.

Otherwise, he said, “There will be no major change in foreign policy. As always, we’re focusing our efforts on establishing more political and economic contacts with other countries, as well as with the European Union and the United States.”

Ankvab’s election campaign was low-key, but he did promise to fight corruption, which many Abkhazians believe has become more widespread since Russian recognition brought an influx of assistance funds.

Ibragim Chkadua, a respected local journalist, doubts the anti-corruption drive will be far-reaching, at least in the short term. For one thing, it will take time to put the right kind of determined, dedicated officials in place, and there will be little time to do so before next year’s parliamentary election.

“It would be inconvenient and dangerous to pursue anything more than cosmetic changes ahead of the parliamentary election, or to reject the loyalty of his [Ankvab’s] previous allies,” Chkadua said. “I think there’s going to be a small purge of those who are most obviously corrupt, but neither the resources nor the resolve exist to break down the system that has grown up in recent years.”

After his defeat at the polls, Shamba announced he was withdrawing from politics. Alkhas Tkhagushev, head of the For Fair Elections group, express doubt that either the prime minister or the young activists who worked on his campaign would be able to stay out of public life for long.

“There are concerns that Ankvab might go for greater authoritarianism, and a counterweight is needed to stop this happening,” Tkhagushev said. “Khajimba ran a good campaign which had a lot of plus points. A team comprising Khajimba and Shamba would make for a serious opposition. That could only be good for both society and the government.”

As for the issue of most concern in Georgia – whether the new president might be more amenable to coming under Tbilisi’s control than Bagapsh was – the consensus view is a definite no.

“There’s been an official declaration rejecting any emphasis on Georgian in our foreign policy, for which Georgia is largely to blame since it has chosen a strategy of isolating Abkhazia,” Khintba said. “I don’t think anything significant is going to change in this area, especially since none of the candidates presented an original idea on it.”

Anaid Gogoryan is a correspondent for Chegemskaya Pravda in Abkhazia.

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