By Liz Fuller
The failure earlier this month of a bid by opposition parties to mobilize the population of Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia to participate in a referendum on holding an early presidential election has not defused political tensions.
On the contrary, the Bloc of Opposition Forces (BOS) — which initially backed the proposed referendum but called a boycott just days before it was due to take place — has already announced its intention of convening a rally of at least 10,000 people in October in a new attempt to force de facto President Raul Khajimba to resign.
Meanwhile, the standoff between the opposition and Khajimba has shifted to the parliament, which has sought since early February to force a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Artur Mikvabia. Mikvabia finally submitted his resignation on July 26 rather than suffer the indignity of such a vote. Prosecutor-General Aleksandr Lomia stepped down the same day.
Mikvabia, 66, is a professional economist whom Khajimba named to head the cabinet in March 2015 following the resignation of Economic Revival Party Chairman Beslan Butba.
But he has proven unable to deliver the economic upswing that figured among Khajimba’s preelection promises two years ago. Abkhazia’s economy has stagnated since the end of the 1992-93 war that culminated in the region’s de facto independence from Georgia, and much of the economic assistance Russia has provided since formally recognizing Abkhazia as an independent state in 2008 has not been invested in the economy.
Whereas Khajimba’s predecessor, Aleksandr Ankvab, gave priority to reviving the agro-industrial sector, with the aim of capitalizing on the region’s balmy climate, providing employment for the rural population, and resuming traditional exports of fruit and tea, Khajimba sees no point in reviving agriculture and is betting on tourism, which benefits primarily the population of Black Sea coastal towns. In addition, the region’s ambiguous status and the ban on the purchase of real estate by noncitizens have deterred investment.
The rationale adduced by opposition lawmaker Alkhas Japua in early February for a no-confidence vote in Mikvabia focused less on the economy than on his imputed bungling of the program to issue new national passports in exchange for old ones. In June, Japua also criticized the work of the cabinet as a whole, and Mikvabia’s alleged failure to undertake any measures to eradicate corruption. Mikvabia rejected that criticism as unfair and slanderous. The Prosecutor-General’s Office declared it unfounded.
Announcing his resignation, Mikvabia claimed his cabinet had done what it could in adverse economic conditions, and with a budget of just 13 billion rubles ($196 million) at its disposal, to tackle the most important problems it faced, including raising salaries and pensions. He subsequently complained to the news site Caucasus Knot that all his efforts to increase tax revenues met with furious resistance. The introduction in January 2016 of a value-added tax, for example, immediately triggered outraged protests from the owners of small businesses.
What motivated Prosecutor-General Lomia to resign is less clear. According to parliament speaker Valery Bganba, Lomia did so for a combination of reasons, including that “he felt he couldn’t cope.” Lomia’s office had just completed a detailed assessment of the chain of events in late May–early June 2014 that culminated in Ankvab’s ouster and formal resignation under pressure from the then-opposition Coordinating Council spearheaded by Khajimba. That assessment exonerated Khajimba and his supporters of acting illegally in seizing control of the presidential administration building, and ruled that the subsequent nomination of Bganba as acting president and the scheduling of new elections did not violate the Republic of Abkhazia’s constitution.
Aslan Bzhania, one of three rival presidential candidates whom Khajimba defeated in August 2014 and a leading member of the BOS, said that assessment itself is unconstitutional.
Khajimba has named First Deputy Prime Minister Shamil Adzinba acting prime minister pending the unveiling of a new cabinet. Journalist Filipp Gromyko opines that Khajimba may take the opportunity to include a handful of opposition politicians in acknowledgment of demands by several opposition forces, including A Just Abkhazia and the People’s Front of Abkhazia for Justice and Development, to create a government of national unity.
A mini-opinion poll of 1,292 people conducted by those two parties from May 12-15 found that 61.9 percent of respondents assessed the performance of the current government as “bad,” 79.7 percent thought its style of work should change, and 66.7 percent advocated the creation of a government of national unity in which all political parties would be represented.
Any such concession to opposition demands would stand Khajimba in good stead if he decides to reappoint as interior minister Leonid Dzapshba, whom he suspended in early July, but who reportedly nonetheless continues to discharge his duties. Opposition supporters had demanded Dzapshba’s dismissal after he publicly warned his subordinates that they and their relatives risked losing their jobs in the event that they participated in the planned referendum on an early presidential vote.