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Stunned Abkhazia Begins Search for New Leader

With no clear front-runner in sight yet, any successor to the late President Bagapsh faces task of promoting Abkhazian interests in close but unequal relationship with Moscow.
By Anaid Gogoryan
  • Funeral procession held in Abkhazia for the late president Sergei Bagapsh. (Photo: Anaid Gogoryan)
    Funeral procession held in Abkhazia for the late president Sergei Bagapsh. (Photo: Anaid Gogoryan)

Abkhazia is still in shock from President Sergei Bagapsh’s sudden death, but the pundits are already weighing the chances of his potential successors.

Bagapsh died in Moscow on May 29 aged 62, a week after undergoing a lung operation.

First elected as president of Abkhazia in 2004 in a battle against the Kremlin’s favoured candidate, Bagapsh will be remembered as the leader who was in charge when Russia formally recognised the republic as an independent state four years later. Abkhazia is still considered part of Georgia by most of the international community, and the government in Tbilisi remains adamant that it must reassert its sovereignty there.

Bagapsh, who was re-elected in 2009, gained a reputation as a calm and canny negotiator who sought compromise among different political groupings in Abkhazia.

Irakli Khintba, a lecturer at the Abkhazian State University, said the late president’s principal achievement was restoring political stability after his election, which brought the country to the brink of civil war.

“When he won, he created an important precedent – the constitutional transfer of power from a ruling elite to the opposition,” Khintba added.

Bagapsh appointed his defeated opponent, Raul Khajimba, as his vice-president during his first term in office.

By law, the election of a new leader must to take place within three months of the president’s death, and politicians will be scrambling to assemble supporters.

“Vice-President Alexander Ankvab, who is temporarily running the country, and Prime Minister Sergei Shamba are the political heavyweights around whom the main contest will focus,” Akhra Smir, a popular Abkhazian blogger, said.

Smir went on to compare and contrast the two contendors.

“In just six years, the tough and pragmatic Ankvab has transformed himself from disgraced politician to being vice-president. His plus points are his strategic skills and his ability to exploit scanty resources even in a hostile situation,” he said. “On Sergei Shamba’s side, however, are his many years of political experience, first as foreign minister and then as prime minister. Sergei Shamba is diplomatic, communicative and prepared to compromise. So in style and methods, he’s got a lot in common with the late president.”

Most observers agree there is no clear front-runner, even if Khajimba is added to the list, and that none is likely to emerge until close to the end of campaigning.

Most analysts agree that Khajimba’s chances look remote at the moment.

According to Spartak Zhidkov, an analyst with the Aynar Media Club, “It is likely that Raul Khajimba will stand, although his chances are a lot smaller than they were before. Khajimba has been in retreat since 2004, when he got 32 per cent. In 2009, he got just 15 per cent, and this suggests that some of his supporters are defecting to other candidates.”

Smir predicted that the ruling United Abkhazia party, created by Bagapsh, would split into factions supporting Ankvab and Shamba, and one of them might even team up with Khajimba’s National Unity of Abkhazia forum.

Zhidkov said the emergence of completely different candidates could not be ruled out, given that few observers predicted Bagapsh’s victory against the then prime minister Khajimba in 2004.

By tradition, if the president comes from western Abkhazia – around the town of Gudauta – then a vice-president is selected from Ochamchira in the east. This allows the presidential team to mobilise support all across the country.

In the forthcoming election, though, “the most important thing is not the family background of one candidate or another, and not even what connections they have in Moscow, but what groups in Abkhazia itself will support them”, Zhidkov said.

It is not clear whether Russia will publicly endorse one of the candidates, or whether it will hesitate to do so after its support for Khajimba backfired in 2004.

“The Abkhaz and other ethnic groups will not allow the elections to take place under instructions from anywhere else,” Zhidkov said. “Judging by what happened in the 2009 presidential election, Moscow has learned the lessons of the earlier [2005] election and drawn the right conclusions,”

Whatever the outcome of the poll, Abkhazia’s foreign policy, which is founded on close ties with Moscow, is unlikely to change.

But Khintba predicted that any new leader would be under popular pressure to continue Bagapsh’s policy of asserting Abkhazia’s key national interests in the face of a “difficult and asymmetric” relationship with Russia.

“Whether a new president can balance on this narrow edge remains to be seen,” he added.

Anaid Gogoryan is an IWPR-trained journalist who works for the Chegemskaya Pravda newspaper in Abkhazia.