Turbulent Times in Abkhazia, South Ossetia

Turbulent Times in Abkhazia, South Ossetia

On May 27, thousands of protestors in Abkhazia stormed the presidential administration, causing President Alexander Ankvab to flee to a Russian military base.

In the days that followed, Abkhazia’s parliament held a non-confidence vote. And after three years as president, Ankvab was forced to resign. His prime minister followed suit the day after.

People on the outside were left wondering what was going on.

“The causes of the protest were universal – corruption at the elite levels of government, the outstanding differences between the living standards of ordinary people and the ruling elite,” explains Inal Khashig editor-in-chief of Chegemskaya Pravda, an independent weekly paper in Abkhazia.”The frustration was ripening and it was at the edge of explosion even a year ago. It almost burst in December, but because of the coming [Sochi] Olympics, it cooled down.”

The protests were led by a group of opposition parties known as the Coordinating Council, united by one thing – dissatisfaction with Ankvab.

“People came out on the streets because they didn’t like Ankvab’s governance. But it doesn’t mean that they are loyal to other political groups. Society was so frustrated by Ankvab’s rule, it won’t tolerate any other failures,” Khashig said. “The mood in society is that people do not care who will become the president…. Whoever the next president will be, he won’t be able to sit comfortably and do nothing. He would have to carry out reforms and find ways to improve the economic situation. He should be capable of making decisions. But on the other hand, he should be able to find a political consensus between the diverse political groups, because otherwise…. presidents will be changed in this country every year.

A presidential election has been called for August 24, and Khashig says it is impossible to tell who will win.

“I don’t see any clear leaders. It’s difficult to say who would be preferred by voters. On the one hand, this is very good, because the leaders are less self-confident and it opens the space for negotiations and working on common issues,” he said.

Events in Abkhazia have increased concerns for the future of ethnic Georgians still living there. Last year, controversy broke out when tens of thousands of ethnic Georgians were given Abkhazian passports. The furore has heightened fears that the local Georgians could suffer if the mood turns more ethnocentric and nationalist.

However, Khashig does not believe a change of government will increase the threat to ethnic Georgians.

“There may be some minor changes, but I doubt these changes would go beyond citizenship. I don’t think it will lead to any unpleasant results such as people being forced to leave. Even very radical groups do not mention anything like that,” he said.

In the nearby breakaway republic of South Ossetia, change is also in the air.

Tbilisi-based blogger Giorgi Jakhaia sees an important difference between developments in South Ossetia and in Abkhazia.

“South Ossetia has been demanding to join North Ossetia [part of Russia] for more than 20 years, and all the parties who run in the elections are in favour of this. But in Abkhazia it’s different – even the question of a referendum to join Russia causes frustration and negativity,” he said.

A parliamentary election in June was won by the United Ossetia party which pledged to hold a referendum and join Russia.

Zarina Sanakoeva, a freelance journalist who reports from South Ossetia, says that despite the talk, it would take some time for this to happen.

“Of course United Ossetia is the largest party; of course they can organise it. But they say we need time; we must first develop our own economy…First we have lots to do here,” she said. “If we imagine that there would be a referendum here next week about joining Russia, I think most people would vote for it.”

She says both sides of the argument need to be heard before a referendum takes place, “because they talk very loud, the parties that want to join Russia. But the other points of view are not so clear. It’s not discussed in mass media or somewhere else.”

Heather Yundt produced this edition of Behind the Headlines, a radio programme made by IWPR Georgia. 

The programme is part of IWPR’s Building Bridges/Building Capacity in the South Caucasus programme, funded by the Norwegian foreign ministry. The contents of the programme do not reflect the views of the funder.

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