On June 20, the Forum of the National Unity of Abkhazia issued a statement about the nomination of a candidate for the presidency in the Georgian breakaway territory of Abkhazia. It is expected that Raul Khadzhimba will become the third candidate in the Abkhaz presidential elections scheduled to take place on August 26. Following the sudden death of the president of Abkhazia, Sergei Bagapsh in Moscow on May 29, an intriguing scramble for power is unfolding in this small, but politically important region. The two primary candidates for the presidency in this territory are Sergei Shamba, the prime minister of Abkhazia and Alexander Ankvab, the vice president and, currently, the acting interim head of Abkhazia. According to some estimates, Raul Khadzhimba may garner as much as 20 percent to 25 percent of the votes and thereby become a possible kingmaker in Abkhazia. The chances of Khadzhimba joining forces with Shamba are reportedly significantly lower than Khadzhimba’s support for Ankvab’s candidacy (www.ekhokavkaza.com, June 20).
Moscow officially recognized Abkhazia as an independent country in August 2008 after the so-called five-day Russia-Georgia war, despite fierce protests in Georgia and among western countries. Since then, Abkhazia has grown even more dependent on Russia for security guarantees and its economic survival. This puts Moscow in a comfortable position to influence the elections in this territory with relatively little extra resources.
Specific preferences in Moscow are not publicly known. Yet, there is some oblique evidence suggesting that the Kremlin may be inclined to support Sergei Shamba’s candidacy. Already, local observers in Abkhazia noted that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who attended the funeral of Sergei Bagapsh in Abkhazia on June 2, was friendlier with Shamba, than with Ankvab. Both the main candidates share much in common, however, including their explicit pro-Russian orientation and reluctance to criticize Moscow even when it comes to defending Abkhazia’s national interests. Shamba is described as a more diplomatic and flexible political figure, while Ankvab has a reputation for his principled position on fighting corruption (Kommersant-Vlast, June 20).
Alexander Ankvab survived five attempts on his life in Abkhazia. The latest occurred in September 2010. So many attempts on a politician’s life in Abkhazia appear to indicate that there are some forces in Russia who are unhappy with him. In 2008, Moscow reportedly wanted to remove Ankvab from his post as prime minister, but Sergei Bagapsh defended him, since Ankvab enjoyed support from Abkhaz war veterans. Ankvab seems to have had uneasy relations with Moscow for some reason. But at the same time Ankvab’s spectacular early career in the interior ministry during the late Soviet era and in particular his appointment to the political department of Georgia’s interior ministry in 1984 strongly suggest his roots in the KGB. Ankvab also spent 10 years living in Moscow, unlike the more homegrown candidate Sergei Shamba (https://lenta.ru/lib/14203516/, accessed on June 20). Thus, if there is a conflict between Alexander Ankvab and Moscow it is likely to be a tactical one, not reflecting any particular rebellious character or unruliness of Abkhazia’s acting president. Ankvab and Khadzhimba’s cooperation during the elections will make much sense as both men appear to have old ties with the Soviet and later the Russian security services.
Shamba’s biography, in contrast to Ankvab, reflects a more self-made man with an academic background that often bred nationalists across the Caucasus in the 1980s. Shamba appears to have been elevated to high positions due to his outstanding diplomatic skills as well as twists of recent rocky history of Abkhazia (https://www.lenta.ru/lib/14184058/, accessed on June 20).
According to the preliminary results of the 2011 census in Abkhazia, its population comprises 243,000 people, which is close to international estimates of 250,000 (https://www.abkhaziagov.org/ru/president/press/news/detail.php?ID=37304, accessed on June 20). Ethnic Abkhaz comprise less than half of the total population of the republic, 95,000 in 2003 (https://www.ethno-kavkaz.narod.ru/rnabkhazia.html, accessed on June 20). According to some unconfirmed reports, these proportions are even worse for the ethnic Abkhaz, but in any case, the indigenous Abkhaz are demographically vulnerable, even though they are the ruling group in Abkhazia. Over 200,000 ethnic Georgians were expelled from Abkhazia during the 1992-1993 Georgian-Abkhaz conflict that drastically shifted the ethnic balance in this territory.
Anxious about losing a shaky majority in their homeland, the Abkhaz are trying to zealously ward off possible infringements on the current ethnic balance status-quo. In 2010 this caused a scandal in Russian-Abkhaz relations as the Abkhaz government refused to return property to Russian citizens who left Abkhazia prior to the war of 1992-1993. Moreover, a short border dispute erupted between Abkhazia and Russia over a small village in the mountains that Moscow reportedly wanted for the purposes of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi (Kommersant-Vlast, June 20).
The Russian Orthodox Church added further to the tensions between Moscow and Sukhumi. The split, dating back to 2005, between the more nationalist Abkhaz orthodox clergymen that introduced services in the Abkhaz language in Abkhaz churches and a more traditional head of the local church, backed by Moscow were revitalized in April 2011. The famous monastery complex in Abkhazia, Novy Afon (named after the renowned Greek Athos) is financed by the Moscow patriarchate. Yet, the new head of the monastery sent by Moscow ordered that Abkhaz language services should stop and instead be conducted in Russian and Greek. In a small society like Abkhazia, the move was bound to divide not only the religious minority, but also the general public. In fact, some observers suggest the church conflict will be a major issue in the forthcoming presidential campaign. On May 15, the Abkhaz orthodox proclaimed an independent church that would not belong to the realm of the Russian orthodoxy (Kommersant-Vlast, June 20).
The political underpinnings of the outwardly religious conflict in Abkhazia are obvious – the Abkhaz are increasingly resentful of actual or perceived attempts by Moscow to control their country. “Moscow needs to understand that Abkhaz independence is not a sham,” Abkhaz print publication editor Inal Khashig said in an interview for Kommersant-Vlast (Kommersant-Vlast, June 20). The problem, however, is that Moscow considers Abkhazia’s independence as “a fake.” Referring to Ukraine as “not even a state” and condescendingly treating other CIS countries, Vladimir Putin is unlikely to seriously perceive Abkhazia as an equal partner for Russia, especially given the uncertain circumstances of Abkhazia’s statehood.