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

Out with the Government in Abkhazia

Abkhazian politics have been deadlocked by government resignation, but the opposition wants more fundamental reforms.
By Inal Khashig

For two weeks there has been hardly anything on the TV news in Abkhazia except statements issued by the republic's president, parliament, political factions and government ministries.


Everything else seems to have been put on hold indefinitely after Prime Minister Gennady Gagulia and his cabinet resigned on April 8, after only four months in power.


The resignation itself was nothing new. Abkhazia has seen seven cabinets come and go in the decade since it gained a precarious form of independence. But this is the first time the government was forced to resign by pressure from the public, rather than an arbitrary decision by the president, Vladislav Ardzinba.


Prime Minister Gagulia - who replaced the charismatic Anri Jergenia after his unexpected sacking in December - quickly became notorious for his inefficiency, and public anger came to a head in late March at the congress of Amtsakhara, a political movement that unites Georgian-Abkhazian war veterans.


Veterans who were previously loyal to the government lashed out at its inefficient economic policy, weak political stance and lack of resolve in fighting crime. They demanded that the president dismiss the government and reform the whole system of power - and said that if this did not happen the Amtsakhara movement would organise a national rally.


It was a potent threat. In Abkhazia, a national rally is the traditional equivalent of a popular referendum, only to be called in times of emergency. National rallies have historically been convened around once every ten years. Even in Soviet times, participants voiced opinions and demands that contradicted official policy. The authorities have never been able to completely ignore the resolutions passed at these popular assemblies, and have been forced to make concessions.


So it was on this occasion, too. At first President Ardzinba complained that the move "threatened constitutional integrity".


"This is an attempt to reduce Abkhazia's political system to a primitive level when presidents and ministers are elected at popular congregations," he said.


But in the end he had no choice but to accept the cabinet's resignation.


Neither side has made a decisive move since the government stepped down. No one seems to be in a hurry to fill the vacuum. The most likely candidates for the post of prime minister, defence minister Raul Khajimba and the chief executive of the Chernomorenergo power company, Sergei Bagapsh, have publicly turned the job down.


No other candidates have been named, and there is speculation that the president may revisit the previous cabinet line-up and ask Gagulia to form a new government.


This could conceivably be enough to satisfy Amtsakhara, as long as certain ministers are ruled out.


"The government must be staffed with honest and patriotically minded people, not deserters," said an Amtsakhara spokesman, apparently referring to the former senior vice premier Ruslan Ardzinba, who emigrated to Canada immediately after the Georgian-Abkhazian war broke out.


However, Amtsakhara is not likely to backtrack on its key demand - a thorough-going reform of the system of government.


Under its constitution, adopted in 1994, Abkhazia is a presidential republic, which means that the president has the power to appoint the premier and government ministers without the prior consent of parliament.


"This constitution was written for just one person, President Vladislav Ardzinba. It was meant to be a 'transitional' constitution, but the transition is taking too long," said Garry Samanba, a leader of Amtsakhara.


Opponents of the current system want wider powers to be given to parliament. Aitaira, until recently the republic's only opposition party, has been lobbying for years to amend the constitution to give lawmakers a say in appointing government ministers.


Leonid Lakerbaya, the leader of Aitaira, believes the existing vertical structure of power is too fragile. "While Ardzinba has been able to handle this much responsibility due to his initial popularity, his successor may not be able to cope - not if he is an equal among equals," he said.


President Ardzinba, for his part, feels that the war veterans have been manipulated by politicians seeking to challenge his presidency.


"Certain political groups who have failed to earn popular support by themselves are now eager to ride to power on the back of Amtsakhara," he said. "Unfortunately, not many people know or realise this."


Although Ardzinba mentioned no names, political analysts say was referring primarily to Anri Jergenia, who has not forgiven the president for sacking him at the peak of his popularity as prime minister. Jergenia has moved to Moscow, but came back to Abkhazia during latest crisis.


He attended the Amtsakhara congress, but the group's leaders deny he was involved in formulating the demand to sack the government. "Jergenia is not an Amtsakhara member. He was invited as a guest speaker," Garry Aiba, Amtsakhara executive secretary, told IWPR.


The Amtsakhara movement has now teamed up with Aitaira, the Popular Party, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions and the parliament majority to drive forward the demands for reforms.


"The current leadership is not prepared to engage the opposition in a political dialogue in order to address our backlog of issues. No one would listen to us until the veterans - a force not to be trifled with - stepped in," Vadim Smyr of Aitaira's political council told IWPR.


Last week the grouping called for the establishment of a Forum of National Accord. In a joint statement, the co-founders said the Forum will be a consultative body tasked with drafting amendments to existing legislation on the election of the president, parliament and local government, and lobbying them in parliament.


The plan is to follow this by establishing a broad-based commission involving the authorities, political parties and movements to draft changes to the constitution creating "a more balanced division of powers between the branches of authority".


All this political turmoil seems to have left the man in the street indifferent. "I don't care who our next premier is going to be," said Pavel, who sells vegetables at a shop next to a government building. "I just want them to get a move on. My pay has been delayed for a week because of the government reshuffle, and my sales have dropped - most of my customers are government employees."


Inal Khashig is a BBC stringer and an IWPR contributor in Abkhazia.


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