At a June 2 meeting with members of the “parliament” of Abkhazia, the secessionist Georgian region’s newly elected “president,” Aslan Bzhania, reported that, during his first visit to Moscow (May 5) (Ekho Kavkaza, May 5), he had secured additional Russian funds to fill local budgetary gaps and assist the Abkhazian agricultural sector. However, Bzhania stressed, he had refrained from accepting Moscow’s long-standing demand to grant citizens of the Russian Federation the right to take possession of real estate and immovable property in Abkhazia. He also told legislators that he had delayed the resumption of Abkhazian citizens’ ability to adopt Russian citizenship (Apsnypress, Chegemskaya Pravda, June 2). Bzhania is thereby following the policy of his predecessors, driven by fears in the Abkhazian establishment that selling off real estate to foreign citizens could jeopardize the demographic situation of the self-declared republic’s indigenous population. According to official data, ethnic Abkhaz constitute 51 percent of the total population (Ugsra.org, accessed June 15). It remains to be seen how long the Abkhazians can maintain this status quo given their statelet’s increasing economic dependence on Russia.
Bzhania was the first presidential hopeful in Abkhazia to give an interview to the Georgian media during an election campaign. Speaking with Interpressnews on January 16, he declared the necessity for direct Georgian-Abkhaz dialogue, apart from the talks occurring within the Geneva International Discussion format since 2009. Bzhania outlined the areas of cooperation he felt might contribute to rebuilding trust: economic connectivity as well as cooperation in fighting crime and in the energy sphere, the latter implying the joint exploitation of the Enguri hydropower station, which straddles both Georgian- and Abkhazian-controlled territories. Bzhania also promised to find a fair solution to the problem of ethnic Georgians residing in the predominantly Georgian-populated Gali district, who had been deprived Abkhazian citizenship by the former government in Sukhumi. And he pledged to once more allow Georgian pupils in Abkhazia to receive an education in their native language (Interpressnews, January 16).
Although Bzhania’s remarks to Interpressnews were met with swift condemnation from Abkhazian hardliners, this criticism did not cost him the election. And following his convincing victory (56.3 percent) in the pre-term presidential contest, held on March 22, Bzhania gave a series of interviews to Russian media outlets, where he offered tribute to Moscow, arguing that some topics in Georgian-Abkhaz dialogue should be discussed with Russian involvement and sensitive to Russian interests. Bzhania vehemently brushed away opponents’ allegations that he desired to rejoin with Georgia, reaffirming that Abkhazia would build relations with Georgia only as an independent state (Interpressnews, January 16; RIA Novosti March 23). At the same time, Bzhania’s decision to give the prime minister’s office to Alexander Ankvab—a former “president” of Abkhazia (2011–2014), known for his less adversarial attitude toward Georgians—has raised hopes in Tbilisi that Georgian-Abkhazian tensions may lessen with the adoption of reciprocal steps and a demand-driven conflict-resolution approach.
Bzhania’s election was made possible by a political crisis in Abkhazia at the start of 2020, in which protests over ballot results in September 2019 forced then–sitting “president” Raul Khajimba to resign under mediation from Moscow (Agenda.ge, January 9, 13). Interestingly, in addition to bringing the opposition to power in Sukhumi, the political crisis brought to the fore a new generation of politicians.
Inal Ardzinba, 29, has embarked on the creation of a new political party, Future of Abkhazia, which, he claims, offers politically proactive Abkhazian youth a new instrument for seeking change. Ardzinba holds the civil rank of active state councilor of Russia and used to work in the administration of President Vladimir Putin of Russia; he presently heads the Council for Youth Affairs at the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. As a close relative of Abkhazia’s first president, Vladislav Ardzinba, whose clan is one of the most influential in the self-proclaimed republic, the younger Ardzinba engaged in political activity in 2017 and maintains close relations with the influential political party Amtsakhara dominated by the Ardzinbas clan. During this year’s snap presidential elections, Inal Ardzinba and his followers supported Bzhania. His party will most likely participate in the coming parliamentary elections in 2022 (Echo Kavkaza, February 13; Aiaaira.com, February 12; Kavkazsky Uzel, January 31; Rossyiskaya Gazeta, January 21; RBC, January 16).
Thirty-six-year-old Dmitri Dbar has a law enforcement and security services background and presently chairs the influential public movement “Kyarazaa,” founded in 2016. His target group is the youth and stated goal is to consolidate society and strengthen Abkhazian statehood. Dbar participated as a candidate for vice president in the presidential elections in 2019, together with Bzhania’s substitute Alkhas Kvitsinia. As a staunch follower of Bzhania, he was named minister of interior in the newly formed government (Amtsakhara.org, July 22, 2019; Kavkazsky Uzel, June 30, 2017; Abkhaziainform.com, March 2, 2016).
Lasha Sakania 34, leads one of the youngest political parties in Abkhazia, the Popular Front for Fairness and Development. Though the party failed to win seats in the parliament in 2017, it remains proactive and tries to push for amendments to the Constitution that would increase age limits for president and members of the parliament. During the presidential elections in 2019 and then March 2020, the Popular Front supported the opposition camp led by the Bzhania-Ankvab duet (Apsadgil.info, December 11, 2019; Abkhaziainform, February 5, 2018; Echo Kavkaza, November 22, 2016; Apsny.today, accessed June 15, 2020).
Surprisingly, Adgur Ardzinba, 39, the youngest presidential hopeful in the history of Abkhazia, was the runner-up (35.4 percent) in the pre-term presidential elections in March 2020. Ardzinba was nominated by a citizens’ initiative group; yet, he is widely associated with the ousted former president Khajimba. During the election campaign, he gained favor by his continuous attempts to smooth over the heated political atmosphere and has positioned himself as a proponent of a new political culture. Ardzinba temporarily halted his campaign after the sudden hospitalization of Bzhania and even visited him at the hospital. He congratulated Bzhania on his victory by visiting his office, thus establishing a new precedent in Abkhazian political life (Apsnypress, March 5; Abkhaziainform, March 3; Kavkazsky Uzel, February 24; Ekho Kavkaza, February 6, 26).
According to a 2019 poll conducted in Abkhazia by the Russian Foundation for the Study of Democracy, 86 percent of respondents stated that Abkhazian politics acutely lacks new faces (RBC, January 16). Such pronounced demand for new political forces does not bode well for the separatist statelet’s longest established politicians, who, though they paved the way for Abkhazia’s de facto independence from Georgia, later failed to cope with inter-clan conflict, which has contributed to the region’s persistent stagnation, crime and corruption. Notably, none of the new young generation of Abkhazian politicians publicly calls for any form of reintegration with the Georgian state. It appears that the “changing of the guard” in Abkhazia’s government should not be expected to bring fundamental changes to Georgian-Abkhazian relations, though it may open some windows of cooperation in certain previously closed areas.