As Abkhazia prepares to vote in a new referendum to determine its future political path, it’s clear that this republic still faces uncertainty over its social and economic development.

Abkhazia's president Raul Khadzhimba said he is ready to resign if the people of Abkhazia vote for it at the referendum. Photo: TASS

On July 10, the partially recognized breakaway republic of Abkhazia will hold an important referendum to determine whether there will be an early election of the president. Abkhazia’s leader, Raul Khajimba, made that decision on June 1 after the initiators of the political campaign for an early election managed to collect 20,000 signatures.

Khajimba justified his decision by the “complexity of the problems the country faces on the path of its social and economic development” as well as the necessity to “preserve the national concord and stability in the state.”

Was this move by Khajimba to some extent predictable, or was it more of an improvisation, an attempt to forestall future political events?

The opposition’s discontent with the policy of the president and the government has been obvious ever since Khajimba’s victory in the election of August 24, 2014. Also, Khajimba’s electoral success was nothing like the overwhelming results enjoyed by some Central Asian leaders. In the first round, he received a mere 50.57 percent of the vote while his main opponent Aslan Bzhania received nearly 36 percent.

Importantly, Khajimba was elected two years ago in an early rather than regular election following a political crisis caused by the resignation of his predecessor, Aleksandr Ankvab. Neither was Abkhaz society in 2014 united in its drive for a change of power, which spelled a difficult future for anyone who took over.

Thus, the dissatisfaction with Khajimba’s policies (which has sometimes taken the form of mass protests) was not something unexpected for the Abkhaz leader. Already in the fall of 2015, the opposition party Amtskhara (The Ancestral Lights) demanded the impeachment of the president. In response, he asserted that he was not going to resign before the end of his term.

Still, the very decision on holding a referendum about an early election was made without delay, and there were no long arguments or discussions about the date for the referendum. So, why has the head of the republic accepted such risks if his term of office expires only in 2019? After all, according to Abkhaz law, the president is elected for a term of five years, so there is no requirement for a referendum. 

In recent years, Abkhazia has not been a frequent subject of political analysis, primarily because it is only a partially recognized republic. As British political analyst Laurence Broers has pointed out, de facto states “have rarely been looked at through the same approaches of transition and democratization applied to the region’s de jure states.”

In 2008, Russia recognized the sovereignty of the republic and became a virtual guarantor of its safety and social and economic recovery. With all that, in contrast to South Ossetia, Abkhazia has not aimed to become part of Russia; instead, it has tried to remain more autonomous.

Thus, on June 10, as he commented on the initiative of the South Ossetian government to hold a referendum on uniting with the Russian Federation, Abkhaz Prime Minister Artur Mikvabia said, “Tskhinvali’s motives are clear. The Ossetians are a divided nation, one part living currently in Russia and the other part in South Ossetia. Hence, they wish to be united. Our situation is a different one. We want to be an independent state while remaining a true, reliable ally of the great Russia. We deserve our independence for which we have paid with thousands of lives of our best sons and daughters.”

Moreover, in spite of its dependence on Moscow, Sukhumi has traditionally aimed at pursuing its separate interests. That became especially apparent during the preparation of the bilateral Russia-Abkhazia Treaty on Alliance and Strategic Partnership, which was signed in November 2014. As Carnegie Center expert Thomas de Waal justly remarked, “Surprisingly, the commentators almost missed to what extent the Abkhaz side had altered the original text of the treaty. It even removed some of the points. The word ‘integration’ was replaced with ‘strategic partnership.’ The Russians were not given the right to acquire Abkhaz citizenship.”

However, the internal developments in Abkhazia have been no less interesting than the broader geopolitical processes. Thus, in May 2014, the discontent with the preceding head of the republic, Aleksandr Ankvab, grew into mass protests against him. It all ended in his early resignation as president. Those who campaigned for his stepping down at that time are now receiving their own share of criticism, with demands for them to leave the Abkhaz political stage.     

Of course, the events of two years ago and the current situation are not completely alike. Today’s government does not restrict itself simply to contemplating events as they occur. Moreover, it even initiates its own rallies in order to prevent the opposition from taking over control the forces of “the street.” Its rhetoric is tougher, too.

Khajimba’s invitation to a referendum on early election characterizes him as a politician who is not afraid to put his own career at stake. In the eyes of the voters, he appears as somebody who is confident of his rectitude and final success. Otherwise, why take such a risky gamble?

Today, hardly anyone can predict with one hundred percent certitude a scenario of further developments. It is not at all guaranteed that, in case of Khajimba’s success, the opposition will readily acknowledge his victory and stop demonstrating their discontent. Are the critics of today’s government going to raise the ante? This question remains open yet. Also, problems that the current government inherited from its predecessors still remain.

Formerly, the opposition’s main rallying point was criticism of Ankvab’s team for the unsatisfactory way they were solving the problem of passportization of the Georgian population in the eastern part of Abkhazia (primarily in the Gali district). At that time, the authorities were almost accused of betraying the national interests for failing to establish clear criteria and transparency in issuing passports to ethnic Georgians. Today, the opposition leaders address the same accusations, almost word for word, to Khajimba’s team.

In a small political entity that has survived a war, blockade, and several attempts to “unfreeze” the armed confrontation, it is practically impossible for the authorities to install a high fence between itself and society. Also, the labels, “government” and “opposition” switch places easily. Two years ago, Khajimba was the head of the opposition, and now he is the actual president who is concerned with preserving “stability” in the republic. Here, social protest is easily activated, and discontent quickly assumes a widespread character.

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However, it is hardly possible to consider this unrest to be a projection of some “Maidan technology.” For many years, protest actions have been an integral part of the Abkhaz socio-political landscape. Moreover, neither the government, nor its critics are against the strategic choice in favor of a union with Russia. Returning to the jurisdiction of Tbilisi is unacceptable to both of them. In today’s Abkhazia, there are no competing foreign policy projects. But both the supporters of the government and its critics believe that the republic should not be dissolved within Russia.

Accordingly, Moscow should understand those realities, and instead of hunting for “color revolutionaries,” it should react to what is going on in Abkhazia. It should act as a moderator and arbiter rather than a biased judge favoring one of the teams. All the more so because no one can guarantee that tomorrow the other team will not become the new government in the republic. 

The opinion of the authors may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.