Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Researcher
Snap illegitimate presidential elections were held in Abkhazia on March 22, 2020. The forecasts proved to be true and the leader of the united opposition forces, Aslan Bzhania, won the “elections.” Bzhania received 56.5% of the votes, the former de facto Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Economy, Adgur Ardzinba, got 35.43% and the former de facto Minister of Internal Affairs, Leonid Dzabshpa, received 2.22%. About 95,109 voters participated in the “elections” which is 71.56% of the overall number of voters. Bzhania will start his tenure as the de facto President of Abkhazia from April 23.
Bzhania’s victory is a sort of revanche on the former President, Raul Khajimba, and his curators from Moscow, for the events of 2014 when Khajimba’s supporters forced Alexandr Ankvab to resign. Bzhania was a member of Ankvab’s team at the time. A symbolic expression of this revanche is that Bzhania named Ankvab as his Prime Minister. Ankvab also led Bzhania’s election headquarters. He himself was unable to run for the office due to age limitations.
Why the Snap “Elections” were Held
Snap “elections” were held after the incumbent de facto President, Raul Khajimba, was forced to resign on January 12 following domestic political pressure and the mediation by Russian curators of Abkhazia (Deputy Head of the Security Council of Russia, Rashid Nurgaliyev, and Assistant to President, Vladislav Surkov). Several factors facilitated his resignation. Khajimba failed to ensure domestic political stability during his tenure as “president” (2014-2019). The validity of his victory in the second round of the 2019 illegitimate presidential elections was under question. The criminal situation worsened so much under his rule that even the “ambassador” of Russia to Abkhazia criticized his government. The number of his supporters shrunk, both in Abkhazia and Moscow. During the January 9-12 crisis, Khajimba’s supporters in Parliament, as well as in the Cabinet and law enforcement structures, remained passive. His weakness is further illustrated by the fact that about 200 people managed to storm the building of his “presidential” administration on January 9.
Khajimba – Russia’s Favorite
Khajimba became the Kremlin’s favorite Abkhaz politician after the passing of Vladislav Ardzinba. However, despite support from Putin, Khajimba failed to become president on several initial attempts. He only managed to achieve this on his fourth try in the snap “elections” held in 2014. These “elections” were called after the May 2014 domestic political crisis when the opposition forces led by Khajimba confronted the de facto President, Aleksandre Ankvab. It was Surkov and Nurgaliyev who visited Sokhumi to resolve the crisis that time around as well. Mediators from the Kremlin convinced Ankvab of the necessity of his resignation.
Who is Aslan Bzhania?
Aslan Bzhania is the fifth de facto President of Abkhazia. He was born in the village of Tamishi in the Ochamchire district in 1963. He took his higher courses of the State Security Committee of the USSR in 1991. He worked in the Abkhaz Security Committee from 1991-1992 and in the State Security Service of Abkhazia from 1992-1993. From 1994, Bzhania moved to Moscow and started commercial activities. In 2010, the de facto President of Abkhazia, Sergey Baghapsh, appointed him as the Head of the Security Service. Bzhania managed to keep this position after the 2011 presidential “elections” as well when Ankvab became the de facto president. In 2014, Ankvab granted Bzhania the title of Major General. In 2014, after Ankvab’s early resignation, Bzhania confronted Khajimba in illegitimate presidential elections (August 2014) and received 35.9% of the votes as opposed to Khajimba’s 50.1%. After this, Bzhania became the Chairman of the United Opposition forces and was elected as an MP of the de facto Parliament in 2017. In 2019, Bzhania was unable to participate in another round of illegitimate presidential elections which was won by Khajimba in the second round. According to a widespread view, Bzhania was poisoned during his visit to Sochi in order to remove him from political activity.
The main challenge for Bzhania will be to improve the current criminal situation in Abkhazia. The main point of criticism against Khajimba was the growing influence of criminal authorities. In this regard, things for Bzhania started on a bad footing. On the second day of the elections on March 23, the “hero” of Abkhazia, Valerian Aiba, was murdered in Gudauta.
The defeated candidate and the Acting President, Valeri Bganba, was quick to congratulate Bzhania on his victory. That said, it will be a challenge for Bzhania to ensure domestic stability. Politics in Abkhazia in the post-Ardzinba period are characterized by the confrontation between Khajimba’s supporters and his opponents. The results of the elections make it clear that the number of Bzhania’s opponents is not small and this is something which could facilitate political instability in future.
Curators of Abkhazia in the Russian government were changed in January. Bzhania will have to develop relations with the new curators and resolve the differences with Khajimba’s supporters in Moscow who still maintain positions in various structures.
Another challenge for Bzhania’s governance will be the condition of his health. Bzhania’s supporters are convinced that he was poisoned in 2019 so that he was unable to participate in the presidential elections that year. He was also ill prior to the March 22 snap “elections” and was forced to undergo treatment in Russia. This time, he managed to overcome his illness on time and participate in the “elections.” However, it would seem that he is not yet completely healthy which will be a challenge in terms of political stability.
What Changes for Russia?
Vladimir Putin congratulated Bzhania on his “solid” victory. Despite the fact that after Vladislav Ardzinba Russia used to support Khajimba directly or indirectly, Moscow is sure that Bzhania or any other candidate will not be able to alter the foreign policy course. The Kremlin has no doubts in the pro-Russian sentiments of the de facto presidents of Abkhazia. Russian military bases in Abkhazia and Russian border guards stationed on the de facto administrative border with Georgia are further guarantees that de facto leaders of Abkhazia will maintain their pro-Russian orientation.
Will there be Dialogue with Tbilisi?
Bzhania and the leading figures in his team represent the old generation which had relations with the Georgian side before the 1990s as well. Their views on dialogue with Tbilisi differ from those of the post-war generation who are more radical in that regard.
During his pre-election campaign, Bzhania talked about the possibility of direct dialogue with Georgia which was received by part of Abkhaz society quite painfully as many consider that dialogue can only begin after Georgia recognizes the independence of Abkhazia.
Bzhania also talked about the dialogue with Tbilisi after his “election” victory as well. According to him:
- Georgians and the Georgian state are our neighbors.
- Whether we want it or not, we have contacts on the level of Georgian and Abkhaz citizens. Many of our citizens are sadly forced to go there (Georgia) to seek qualified medical treatment. There are cases when crimes are committed in Abkhazia and criminals seek shelter in Georgia and vice versa. The Enguri HPP is exploited jointly. The format of negotiations and contacts for resolving such issues and addressing any current issues may be different. This could not be in a distant place like Geneva but here at the border or in some other place that is close.
- Bilateral negotiations between the Georgian and Abkhaz states appear to be impossible which is the fault of the Georgian side as it does not recognize Abkhazia. Georgia has adopted laws according to which the territory of Abkhazia is recognized as an occupied territory. Otherwise we are receiving certain signals from public institutions. These signals confirm that some political groups in Georgia want to launch a more intensive dialogue.
- The problem of granting citizenship to the ethnically Georgian population in the Gali District was politicized to destabilize the situation and ultimately change the government. This did take place in May 2014 by the opposition, headed by Khajimba (Abkhazia started changing passports under Khajimba’s presidency. New passports were no longer given to Gali District inhabitants who had Georgian citizenship. Their old Abkhazian passports were cancelled).
Bzhania’s statements could be a signal that the Abkhaz side is ready for a new format of relations with the Georgian side to be formulated which would mean the existence of constant contact regarding current issues without Russian mediation. However, Bzhania’s readiness will likely be thwarted by domestic Abkhaz pressure and Russia which is not interested in the development of direct Georgian-Abkhaz relations.
It must be pointed out that a new generation is coming into politics in Abkhazia, likely to replace the pre-war generation completely in the upcoming decade. The new generation, which was born in the post-war Abkhazia, is not ready for dialogue with Tbilisi and anti-Georgian sentiments abound among their views. Therefore, the usage of the limited resource of developing relations with Bzhania’s de facto government in various formats could be the last possibility for establishing direct contacts with Abkhazians. Developing any kinds of connections after the departure of Bzhania and Ankvab’s generation from Abkhazian politics will be a much more difficult task.