Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Limited Scope for Different View in Abkhazia

Statelet’s opposition struggles with lack of ideas, resources.
By Anaid Gogoryan
With less than two months to go before Abkhazia’s presidential elections, the main opposition candidate has accused the government of denying him equal access to the media and campaigning resources.



Raul Khadzhimba told IWPR that the actions of his rival, President Sergei Bagapsh, who has headed the Black Sea statelet – recognised as independent by Russia, but considered to be a rebel Georgian province by almost all other countries – since 2005, revealed that his talk of democracy was a lie.



“The representatives of the government pronounce beautiful words about how there must be an opposition in the country, but at the same time they react very negatively to the opposition’s actions and its assessments of what is happening in the country. This does not give a positive image of the government,” he said.



“The opposition does not have the chance to speak on television. It does not have the chance to present its position in the state newspapers. There is a barrier everywhere, which stops the opposition from appearing and this is done by the government. The government does not allow the opposition’s opinion to reach the whole population.”



Khadzhimba’s allegations are rejected by the government and, analysts say, a more serious problem for him is that Abkhazia’s rulers have only very limited room for manoeuvre, meaning he will struggle to present any policies distinct from Bagapsh’s.



The country is still devastated by the 1992-3 war in which Georgia lost control of Abkhazia, and it is reliant on Russia for more than half of its budget, meaning its policy is limited by the demands of Moscow.



“All the political movements —from the government and the opposition – speak of the need to build a law-based democratic state, a socially-orientated market economy, the significance of preserving the Abkhaz ethnic group and language, of strengthening ties with Russia,” said Arda Inal-Ipa, the co-director of the Centre for Humanitarian Programmes think-tank in Sukhum.



“A normal observer struggles to work out what is the main difference between the main political forces. A clear and comprehensible difference is in personnel, in the leaders and make-up of the teams. I still hope that the decisive factor in the elections will not be negative campaigning but ideas and programmes.”



Khadzhimba’s team secured a significant victory in forcing the government to backtrack on plans to grant Abkhazian citizenship to ethnic Georgians living in the eastern Gal region in August, and created an impression that the authorities were pro-Georgian – not a popular thing to be among the non-Georgians who make up most of Abkhazia’s population.



“This reminds many people of the situation in the elections of 2004, although, the tactic did not work then. Sadly, we must conclude that our society is missing the chance of using the pre-electoral rise in political agitation for holding constructive discussions on the future of the country,” Inal-Ipa said.



Khadzhimba lost the 2004 election to Bagapsh, and – in a post-election deal brokered by Russian officials to end protests that followed the disputed poll – served as vice-president until earlier this year. He now says that, when he was in government, his initiatives were ignored by Bagapsh’s allies, but his previous closeness to the government is easily exploited to undermine his position as an opposition leader.



“My personal attitude to him is positive, but he did not prove himself to be a good government figure,” said Marina Gumba, head of the pro-government political movement Amtsakhara.



“Having headed the service of state security, he now talks about crime and our criminal situation. It is not right to blame someone else for this, and not recognise that it happened with his own connivance. He says that nothing is done in the state but all these years he either ran, or headed these structures. It is not correct for a man who was prime minister, vice-president, who headed the security services, to behave that way.”



Still, such criticism has not stopped Khadzhimba attacking the government on its record, and even using his own experience as proof – which rather takes the sting out of Gumba’s criticism of him.



He said he knew of a number of criminal cases being prepared against opposition activists.



“I know of the specifics of the actions of the authorities and the exploitation of the police to influence opposition supporters, and about how it is done. I cannot rule out that this process is still continuing,” he said.



“If, before the arrival of the current authorities, the situation was not the best, then in the last four and a half years it has got much worse. Just show me any fact to show that the government has kept the promises it made to the people.”



But he has a long way to go to convince neutral observers.



Inal Khashig, editor of the independent Chegemskaya Pravda weekly, said activists had nothing to complain about – although he has himself been warned about publishing critical material.



He said there had been a vast improvement in political freedom since the days of Vladislav Ardzinba, who led the Abkhazians in their war against Georgia and headed the state until Bagasph’s election.



“In Abkhazia the situation with the opposition is fine, not like it was ten years ago when to be in opposition meant you had to be some kind of hero. Abkhazia has progressed. Today opposition is not something negative, there are no obstacles,” he said.



Anaid Gogoryan is a reporter from Chegemskaya Pravda and a participant in IWPR’s Cross-Caucasus Journalism Network.