Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Researcher 

As a result of the January 9-12, 2020 political crisis, the de facto President of Abkhazia, Raul Khajimba, resigned. Khajimba, who himself became president amid such a crisis in the past, was forced to leave his position due to mounting domestic political pressure and the mediation from his Russian curators. Illegitimate snap presidential elections were scheduled for March 22, 2020 and Khajimba does not plan on participating. Presidential candidates will be named after January 22 and Aslan Bzhania, the main opposition politician and leader of the “Abkhaz Revolution,” has the highest chance of winning.

Chronology of the Crisis

Protests erupted in Abkhazia on January 9 when several hundred people stormed the Presidential Administration building and occupied it. Supporters of the opposition demanded the resignation of Khajimba and new presidential elections. Amid growing tensions, the de facto Parliament convened in an extraordinary session and suggested Khajimba resign his duties on his own volition. Khajimba assessed the on-going processes to be a coup.

On January 10, the Supreme Court of Abkhazia declared the results of the September 8 illegitimate presidential elections, in which Khajimba won by a small margin, to be illegal.

Tensions continued on January 11 and 12 as well which resulted in the election commission appointing new elections on March 22. In the late evening of January 12, Khajimba left his position. On January 13, 32 of 34 MPs of the Parliament of Abkhazia, including supporters of Khajimba, voted in favor of Khajimba’s resignation. On the same day, Khajimba’s Vice President, Aslan Bartsits, also left his position. The acting Prime Minister, Valeri Bganba, commenced his duties as Acting de facto President.

Curators from the Kremlin

The Deputy Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, Rashid Nurgaliyev, and the President’s Assistant, Vladislav Surkov, played a decisive role in Khajimba’s resignation.

Nurgaliyev was the first to visit Sokhumi on January 10, meeting Khajimba on that same day. On January 11, Nurgaliyev met with both Khajimba and Bzhania. On January 12, Nurgaliyev participated in the decisive meeting between Khajimba and Bzhania as a mediator.

At the final stage of the crisis, on January 12, Surkov arrived in Sokhumi, meeting with the leaders of the opposition and talking to Khajimba by telephone only. It was after this telephone call that Khajimba announced his resignation.

Khajimba and Russian Support

Khajimba was Russia’s favorite Abkhazian politician after Vladislav Arzinba’s departure from politics. Despite open support from the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, towards Khajimba in the 2004 presidential elections, the election was nonetheless won by the head of the “state-owned” power company, ChernoMorEnergo, Sergei Bagapsh, which seriously damaged the Kremlin’s reputation. Khajimba was once again defeated by Bagapsh in 2009. In 2011, Khajimba lost yet another election, held ahead of time due to Bagapsh’s death.

Khajimba’s moment arrived in 2014 when the Kremlin decided that Aleksander Ankvab and his team were hindering Abkhazia’s deeper integration with Russia. As a result of a domestic political crisis in May 2014, Ankvab was challenged by the opposition headed by Khajimba. Surkov and Nurgaliyev visited Sokhumi to resolve the crisis that time around as well. Resulting from their mediation, Ankvab resigned and Khajimba won on his fourth try in the snap presidential elections held in 2014. Khajimba managed to secure Russian support in the 2019 elections as well. Surkov visited Sokhumi before the elections which was assessed to be expressing Russian support towards Khajimba. However, this turned out to be insufficient to achieve a decisive victory and Khajimba only managed to win in the second round with a small advantage. It was the results of this second round that Khajimba’s opponents were demanding to be annulled.

Main Figures of the “Abkhaz Revolution”

The main roles in Khajimba’s resignation were played by the “Hero of Donbas,” Akhra Avidzba, Khajimba’s powerful political opponent, Bzhania, and the curators dispatched by the Kremlin.

Akhra Avidzba played a decisive role at the outset as he was the organizer of storming the Presidential Administration building. Avidzba has been fighting as a volunteer in the so-called People’s Republic of Donetsk since 2014.

After the successful storming of the Presidential Administration, Bzhania hastily arrived from Moscow and took on the role of the leader of the opposition, engaging in negotiations with Khajimba through Russian curators. Bzhania was poisoned in April 2019 while he was in Russia. It is highly probable that they tried to remove Bzhania as a competitor of Khajimba. That said, Bzhania has already been through the rehabilitation process and appears to be ready to become president.

While Khajimba’s opponents were being active, his supporters appeared to be rather passive and/or neutral, be it in the Parliament, government or law enforcement structures. They did not express sufficient support towards Khajimba in the crisis period and acted entirely on the orders of the leaders of the opposition.

Reasons for the Political Crisis

Three important factors facilitated Khajimba’s early resignation.

First – one of the reasons for the political crisis were the results of the second round of the 2019 presidential elections where Khajimba was unable to get more than 50% of the votes as determined by the law. Khajimba received 47.38% of the votes in the second round while the leader of “Amtsakhara,” Alkhaz Kvitsinia, who enjoyed Bzhania’s support during the period of his illness, got 46.19%. The existing legislation gave room for interpretation of the results which was cleverly used by Khajimba’s opponents.

The second decisive reason was the criminal situation in Abkhazia. Due to the murders of Russian citizens in recent years and increasingly frequent cases of aggression against Russian tourists, even the “Ambassador” of Russia in Abkhazia scolded the de facto government of Abkhazia which was followed by criticism expressed by the Abkhaz public towards the “Ambassador” for interfering in domestic Abkhazian affairs.

The latest high-profile criminal case took place on November 22, 2019 at the San-Remo restaurant in downtown Sokhumi when two criminal authorities were killed. The murder of the thieves-in-law, Alkhas Avidzba and Astamur Shamba, was followed by the protests of their relatives against Khajimba. One of the main organizers of the protests, Akhra Avidzba, is Alkhas Avidzba’s cousin.  According to popular opinion in Abkhazia, Avidzba’s return from Donbas to Abkhazia was caused, among other things, by revenge plans against Khajimba. Possible connections of Khajimba’s security guard to the murders further bolstered the protests.

Khajimba also failed to defend his Vice President, Vitali Gabnia, who resigned after he was beaten in the restaurant, yet the perpetrators could not be caught.

Third, it seems that Russia is also tired from years of supporting Khajimba and covering him up. Khajimba failed to show adequate political skills as well as failing to hasten the pace of integration with Russia. The Kremlin knows very well that there is no difference between Abkhazian political groups in terms of their foreign policy orientation. The on-going struggle is more about the pace of integration with Russia and control of the financial resources flowing from Russia.

Post-Crisis Environment

Aslan Bzhania’s Chances

Given the de-moralized state of Khajimba’s supporters, Bzhania has the best chances of winning the election and he has presumably managed to secure the Kremlin’s support at this stage as well. The participation of Khajimba’s team members in the elections will be of a nominal character.

Dialogue with Tbilisi

After the completion of the crisis, Bzhania talked about the possibility of direct dialogue with Georgia. Former de facto Prime Minister, Sergei Shamba, also reiterated this sentiment. Part of Abkhaz society took these statements by the veterans of Abkhazian politics rather harshly as many believe that dialogue can only begin after Georgia recognizes the independence of Abkhazia.

Third Force

They have been talking about the appearance of a third force in Abkhazia for a long time, hoping it could gradually replace the current political leadership. In this regard an interesting statement was made by the former employee of Russia’s Presidential Administration and the former curator of the Donbas separatists, Inal Ardzinba. Ardzinba, who is well-known among Russian political elites, plans to establish a new political party in Abkhazia. This is Ardzinba’s first statement about his participation in Abkhazian politics. It would appear that the Kremlin is preparing a young generation of politicians for Abkhazian politics who have less connections to Georgia and support integration with Russia more enthusiastically, unlike those in the old generation of Abkhazian politicians. Ardzinba stated the pre-requisite for dialogue with Georgia to be the recognition of the independence of Abkhazia, thereby expressing an opinion in contradiction with the positions of Bzhania and Shamba. At the same time, he recorded an address for the Russian media where he talked about revealing new leaders in Abkhazia and the development strategy for Abkhazia.