The month-long confrontation over the disputed presidential elections in Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia has claimed its first victim. Tamara Shakryl, 78, was a senior associate at the Institute for the Study of the Humanities, Abkhazian Academy of Sciences, and backed presidential candidate Raul Khajimba. On November 12, armed supporters of the other leading presidential candidate, Sergei Bagapsh, shot Shakryl dead while she and a large crowd were defending the government headquarters from seizure by Bagapsh followers. The clash left at least three Bagapsh supporters wounded (Itar-Tass, NTV, Interfax, TV-Rustavi-2, November 12). The violence erupted following two simultaneous rallies in Sukhumi, one by Bagapsh supporters and the other by Khajimba supporters.
Shielded by the North Caucasus militia, which had been sent to Abkhazia to protect Khajimba, the Moscow-installed Prime Minister of Abkhazia, Nodar Khashba, and other officials managed to escape the building safely. Khashba and outgoing Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba reportedly fled into Russia-controlled territory (Tomorrow, Alia, November 13). In his November 11 address to the Abkhaz people, Ardzinba had warned of impending civil conflict and called for re-running the presidential election. Bagapsh claims victory in the October 3 voting and vehemently opposes a re-vote.
On November 13, Interfax distributed a statement by Ardzinba in which he pronounced the seizure of the government buildings to be an “armed coup.” That same day, Khashba stated that the government’s evacuation from administrative buildings does not mean anarchy. He said that the Abkhaz armed forces had been alerted but for now remained in their barracks (RTR “Vesti,” NTV, Utro.ru, November 13).
Bagapsh managed to defuse the violence, which could produce large-scale bloodshed, by calling on his supporters to vacate the buildings and disperse (RIA-Novosti, November 12). Nevertheless, Bagapsh supporters keep their vigil around strategic facilities in Sukhumi. Most of the staff of the Abkhaz Interior Ministry sides with Bagapsh, largely due to the influence of Alexander Ankvab, Abkhazia’s interior minister in 1992-94 and the leading candidate to become prime minister in a Bagapsh government (Tomorrow, November 13).
The November 12 violence resulted from frustration with several fruitless negotiations between Bagapsh and Khajimba. Bagapsh again proposed that he and Khajimba — his “younger brother and friend” — form a coalition government. But neither Khajimba nor other candidates accepted the offer. The bloody events of November 12 have cast a shadow on the legitimacy of Bagapsh’s presidential claim. Several influential Abkhaz groups have spoken out against leaders “whose conscience is weighed by bloodshed and anti-state activity.”
Russian parliamentarian and Director of the CIS Institute Konstantin Zatulin, who monitored the elections, said the seizure of government buildings has “rather moved Bagapsh away from the presidency” (NTV, “Vesti”, Rustavi-2, Rosbalt, November 13).
Meanwhile, Khajimba told his supporters that, given recent events, it would be difficult for him to resume a dialogue with Bagapsh. Khajimba, however, hinted that he and his supporters might retaliate should Bagapsh’s followers continue to be violent. Khajimba likely relies on political and military support from Russia.
Bagapsh charged the Abkhaz government with doing nothing to prevent the confrontation. At the rally he called on the Abkhaz nation to unite “to spite our enemies” (Itar-Tass, November 12). “Let no one create the illusion that Abkhazians would allow anyone to suppress them,” he told the crowd. The message was likely addressed both to Georgia and Russia (Tomorrow, November 13). However, it appears that some Abkhazians still want to remain under Russian protection.
On November 12, Khajimba and his followers sent an appeal to Moscow that asked Russia to protect Russian citizens in Abkhazia and establish stability in the region (Resonance, November 13). The response from Moscow was quite adequate. According to Levan Kiknadze, head of the Abkhaz division of the Georgian Ministry of Security, several units of Russian peacekeepers deployed in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict zone were promptly moved to Sukhumi (NTV.ru, RTR-Vesti, Inter-Press, Resonance, TV-Rustavi, November 12-13).
Alexander Yakovenko, spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stated that in case of a coup in Abkhazia, “Russia would take necessary measures to protect its interests.” Yakovenko placed responsibility for “possible negative consequences” from taking power by force squarely on Bagapsh (Ekho Moskvy, RIA Novosti, Itar-Tass, November 12). The Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded immediately with a protest note that called on Moscow to refrain from intervening in Georgian domestic affairs. Russia dismissed the demarche and explained that Moscow was only concerned about the possible spillover from the Abkhaz conflict to North Caucasus. Moscow claimed to have asserted control over the Russo-Abkhaz border. In an interview with Rustavi-2 TV, Bagapsh said that although he disagrees with many points in the Russian Foreign Ministry statement, good relations with Russia remain a top priority for Abkhazia.
Meanwhile, many Russian analysts admit that the Kremlin misread the situation in Abkhazia during the elections and is now paying for its mistake (Novoe vremya, November 11; Lenta.ru, November 12). One other misstep came when the Kremlin publicly disgraced the Abkhaz presidential candidates by summoning them to Moscow for a terse lecture on November 1-2 (see EDM, November 9).
The Tomorrow daily (November 13) quoted an anonymous representative of the Abkhaz Women for Peace NGO who said that sane Abkhazians want to have Georgians back.
Tbilisi is formally following a policy of non-intervention, but nevertheless is working covertly to mobilize the ethnic Georgian population of Abkhazia on the side of Bagapsh (Alia, November 13). However, the denouement of the Abkhaz crisis still largely depends on Russia’s attitude.