The critical phase in the political situation of the breakaway region of Abkhazia continues, following the June 9 assassination of Gary Aiba, political secretary of the influential Abkhaz political-public movement “Amtsakhara.” Effects of the assassination have resonated widely throughout Abkhazia, significantly undermining the government’s already weakened stance. Lieutenant General Alexander Evteev, commander of Russian peacekeeping troops, deployed in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict zone, described the current situation in Abkhazia as tense but stable (News.ru.com June 15).
Shortly after Aiba’s assassination, key members of the self-proclaimed Abkhaz government resigned. Amtsakhara and “Unified Abkhazia,” another influential movement, have demanded that the entire government resign to be replaced by a transitional “government of consent,” which will govern the breakaway region until “presidential elections” which are scheduled for fall of this year (Inter-Press June 17, 21, Resonance, June 22).
Among those resigning were: First Vice-Premier Astamur Tania; Foreign Minister Sergey Shamba; Head of State Security Service Givi Agrba; and Genady Gagulia, head of administration for Abkhaz’s self-proclaimed President Vladislav Ardzinba. However, there appear to be differing reasons for the resignations. Gagulia, formerly prime minister of Abkhazia, who was forced to resign last year under pressure from Amtsakhara, explicitly linked his resignation with the pending presidential elections. “There is a certain scenario to the presidential elections in Abkhazia. I don’t match this scenario and thus I prefer to step down,” he said (Mtavari Gazeti June 19).
Shamba, one of the strongest presidential hopefuls, who resigned shortly after the Aiba assassination, gained good political mileage in the eyes of the influential Amtsakhara, which is composed mainly of Georgian-Abkhaz war veterans. Amtsakhara had unsuccessfully struggled to oust Ardzinba from office for the past 18 months – a period marked by the shaping of Ardzinba opposition.
Recently, Amtsakhara and Unified Abkhazia, led by Shamba, have created a political union of sorts, which incorporates several influential Abkhaz politicians, including former Prime Minister Sergey Bagapsh; Military Commissioner Merab Kishmaria; ex-Vice Premier Said Tarkil, and former Economic Minister Vitali Tarnava. The move leads analysts to theorize that influential political groups in Abkhazia have bet on Shamba, who is known for his intransigent anti-Georgian policy and is a strict follower of the secessionist agenda. Mamuka Areshidze, a Georgian expert on Caucasian issues, said that the newly formed coalition has already decided on Shamba as the next president of Abkhazia. Areshidze said that, despite focusing on national interests, Shamba is cognizant of Russian interests, possibly making him a suitable candidate in Moscow’s eyes (Mtavari Gazeti June 19).
Other potential presidential hopefuls, such as Moscow-based former Prime Minister Anri Jergenia, Nodar Khazhba, the ex-mayor of Sukhumi, and former Interior Minister Alexander Ankvab so far have remained uncommitted. These potential candidates, in addition to Shamba, were Ardzinba’s close allies, but now oppose his policies, except for his separatist agenda. It is apparent that the forthcoming elections are of particular importance, as they will inaugurate the end of a 13-year period which was dominated by self-styled President Ardzinba, who spearheaded de facto independence from Georgia. The Abkhaz political establishment expects Ardzinba to name his successor. According to some sources, Ardzinba was forced to choose between Gagulia and current Prime Minister Raul Khajimba. Gagulia’s resignation spurred speculation that Ardzinba has decided in favor of Khajimba. On June 17, Khajimba issued a televised statement. “I support the idea for the Abkhaz nation to get an opportunity to elect a president from among the wide range of personalities. However, the activities of some politicians are directed at deepening a crisis and causing public discord in Abkhazia, because this is the sole precondition for them to take the power,” he said, evidently alluding to Shamba, Gagulia and Amtsakhara leaders. In the same televised address Khajimba said that the government would not resign despite demands from some political forces, because this step “will ruin Abkhazia” (Mtavari Gazeti June 18).
As long as Ardzinba’s opposition consolidates, the political temperature in Abkhazia will rise. In addition to Amtsakhara, another influential Abkhaz public organization “Aitara” (Revival) issued a statement charging Ardzinba with personal responsibility for Aiba’s assassination. Aitara charged the Abkhaz Parliament and government with inefficiency (Media News June 17). These tersely worded statements testify to at least three trends: increasing infighting for power, increasing anti-government sentiment in the Abkhaz establishment, and weakening of Ardzinba’s stance. The total failure of the recent gathering of 15 less influential political and public organizations, which are expected to constitute Ardzinba’s support, testifies in part to this trend (Mtavari Gazeti June 22). Recently, the Shamba-led union presented an ultimatum to the government, calling for its immediate resignation. However, Khajimba’s government will not yield to the ultimatum (Mtavari Gazeti, June 18).
Ardzinba who is gravely ill, most likely realizes that the end of his rule is approaching. Ardzinba hopes to pave the way to the presidential office for his protégé by putting artificial obstacles in the paths of other presidential hopefuls. For example, in mid-June the ailing Ardzinba signed the decree “Constitutional Law about the Election of President of Abkhazia,” which prescribes that only a native Abkhaz, aged 35 to 65, speaking the Abkhaz language and living in Abkhazia permanently for the last five years is eligible to run for president. The decree automatically excludes Moscow-resided Ankvab and Khazhba from the presidential race. Moscow, which has always closely monitored the situation in Abkhazia, is expected to prevent any undesirable surprises in the election. On June 14, a Russian State Duma delegation, led by Dimitry Rogozin, chair of the “Rodina” faction, visited the breakaway region “at the invitation” of the Abkhazian “Parliament.” The fact that the visit coincided with the onset of political friction suggests in Rogozin’s words that, “Russia is observing with great interest what is happening in Abkhazia and South Ossetia” (Inter Press, Kavkas Press June 14).
The infighting between Abkhaz political groups is gaining momentum. It reveals the deepening fissure among the once consolidated Abkhaz political elite. The power struggle is likely to be a hallmark of political life in post-Ardzinba Abkhazia. The stakes are high both for the Abkhazs and Tbilisi, because the outcome of the infighting will foreshadow the immediate future of this war-torn breakaway region of Georgia and to the extent that it will match the Georgian government’s plans. In outward appearance, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili’s government is taking a wait-and-see position regarding the latest developments in Abkhazia, because any attempt by Tbilisi to interfere excessively in Abkhaz affairs at this stage would fuel anti-Georgian sentiment in the region.