In a recent referendum in the little-recognized state of Abkhazia, the question on the ballot was fairly important: should early presidential elections be held? Yet turnout was a record low at just 1.23 percent. The number of voters—750 people in favor of early elections and 761 against—is odd even for such a small nation, and demonstrates the divide in the state, which is only recognized by Russia and a handful of other countries, having declared independence from Georgia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The referendum was an attempt to quiet the vocal opposition that has plagued the government since it came to power two years ago, when mass protests in May 2014 forced former Abkhaz president Alexander Ankvab to resign, and early elections in August of the same year brought protest leader Raul Khajimba to power.

In that vote, too, the populace was far from united: Khajimba got 50.6 percent of the vote, while his main opponent Aslan Bzhania, who had served on Ankvab’s team, got just under 36 percent.

In the fall of 2015, the opposition party Amtsakhara tried to organize a lack of confidence vote, criticizing Khajimba for the same things that they had been chastised for when in power: corruption, refusal to constructively communicate with the opposition, and unwillingness to reform the system of governance and to develop Abkhazia’s own social and economic resources instead of depending wholly on Moscow’s support.

In April 2016, the opposition submitted about 19,000 signatures to the republic’s central election commission, calling for a referendum on a lack of confidence in the president. If the majority of voters expressed a lack of confidence in Khajimba, another early presidential election would be held in Abkhazia.

On June 1, Khajimba hit back by announcing suddenly that a referendum would be held in mid-July—not the best time to tourist season—because of the need to “preserve national concord and stability.”

On the eve of the referendum, the opposition again tried to seize the lead, proposing on July 5 to postpone the referendum until the fall. The opposition also held rallies demanding the removal of Interior Minister Leonid Dzapshba, who was accused of using administrative resources to undermine the will of the people. Khajimba sacrificed his interior minister and refused to change the date of the referendum. So the opposition called for a boycott, while Khajimba’s supporters reasonably decided that a lack of voter turnout would amount to victory for the president’s team.

Now the government and the opposition are both trying to profit from the referendum. President Khajimba declared that the issue of early elections can only be raised again after two years. By that time, he will be done with most of his first term. Formally, it appears that the president has done everything that could be expected of him: he accommodated the opposition and agreed to hold a referendum. With voter turnout at a record low, he will try to close the topic.

The outcome of the referendum might seem like a blow for the opposition. However, during the mass protests in early July, the opposition showed its prowess: the dismissal of a key minister is not something to scoff at. Going forward, Khajimba’s opponents aren’t likely to remain passive.

In examining the heart of Abkhazia’s political turbulence, domestic politics should be viewed as independent of greater geopolitical trends in the Caucasus. The instability in Abkhazia’s domestic politics has its own roots that are unrelated to the republic’s status or its relations with Georgia, Russia, and the world community at large. 

Never since the collapse of the USSR have there been any arguments within Abkhazia about the country’s main strategic ally. This is not because tiny Abkhazia is particularly partial to titanic Russia. Abkhazia has mixed feelings about both Moscow’s role during Abkhazia’s war of independence against Georgia in 1992–1993—in which Abkhazia lost nearly three-fifths of its pre-war population—and its introduction of a blockade and sanctions against the unrecognized republic. Despite this, Sukhumi inevitably views Moscow as the guarantor of Abkhazia’s self-determination. 

No one except Russia is now willing to invest in rebuilding the republic or to sponsor its security. Of course, Moscow has its own objectives in the Black Sea-Caucasus region, but where Georgia is concerned, the interests of Moscow and Sukhumi are aligned. Furthermore, unlike fellow Georgian breakaway republic South Ossetia, Abkhazia is not interested in becoming part of Russia, so it seeks to build asymmetrical relations with Moscow while protecting its own interests.

So the debate in Abkhazia today is not about whether partnering with Russia is good or bad, it’s about the quality of independence (albeit, independence earned with Russia’s assistance and only partially recognized). Abkhazia has escaped Georgia’s political sphere of influence, but it hasn’t resolved the stalemate between the quest for statehood and factual dependence on Russia in the financial, defense, and security sectors.

The late-Soviet and post-Soviet history of Abkhazia has been rich in social and political protests, and the premature departure of former president Ankvab in 2014 is only the most recent example. Assemblies to oppose being part of Georgia were held even under Stalin. Approximately once a decade (1967, 1977–1978, 1989), Abkhazia erupts in protests and petition campaigns. 

Practically the only exception to the trend was under the first president of post-Soviet Abkhazia, Vladislav Ardzinba. However, his reign hinged on the charisma of the politician, who headed and protected Abkhazia during the years of war and sanctions. 

His successor Sergei Bagapsh was a less formidable politician, but succeeded in creating a system of constructive cooperation among various political forces, leaving room for the opposition, civil society, and the media. 

The problem facing Abkhazia today is that it lacks not only charismatic leaders, but also cautious, pragmatic moderates who would be ready to take a broad range of opinions and interests into account. This drives the schism that could be stopped either through clear-cut and widely accepted political rules, or through the personal clout of a head of state.

The current conflict within Abkhazia is not decisive, and yet it cannot be ignored, particularly since Abkhazia is a small republic with strong informal connections, where the system of state management cannot be a strict vertical or be blindly forced to match Russian notions of stability.

Right now the important task is to establish constructive dialogue between the government and the opposition, since both are currently looking to Moscow for partnership. A successful resolution of the domestic conflict would be useful for everyone who wants to see Russia as a partner and ally—and not just in Abkhazia.

  • Sergei Markedonov