Presidential Elections in Abkhazia: A Competition Beyond the Rule of Law

On 22 March extraordinary presidential elections will be held in Abkhazia, a de facto state recognized by Russia. The main candidates hardly argue about the support from Russia, but the campaign in two rounds will nevertheless be tough. Abkhazian politics is characterized by a very low level of state capacity and by being run by members of organized crime – or thieves-in-law, as they are called in the post-Soviet region.

Brekhalovka is the legendary cafe under the green roof in the center of Sukhumi. People come here to drink coffee, play chess and talk (the verb brekhat’ means to tell tall tales). In November 2019 two thieves-in-law were killed here. Some people describe their noble background: «They didn’t use drugs, knew foreign languages and one looked like a scientist». Others recall what business they were in: «They kidnapped people for ransom». This is how the current presidential campaign began. A member of the presidential guard was allegedly involved in the shootout (his guilt has not been proven by the court). In early autumn, head of state, Raul Khadzhimba, barely won over his inexperienced rival Alhas Quitsinia. Aslan Bzhaniya, the president’s main rival, who probably would have won the election, was poisoned and had dropped out of the race.

Should a thief be in prison?

Khadzhimba’s first presidency, which he was able to take up after the fourth ballot only, is a failure. Economic indicators are deteriorating, people demand reforms but there is only disarray. Khadzhimba, surrounded by a growing number of criminal figures, is by far not as popular as Vladislav Ardzinba, the founder of modern Abkhazia, or Sergei Bagapsh. He asks for support from Moscow. Three independent sources confirm, Khadzhimba meets with thieves-in-law before the election, and they provide him the partial support of mob.

Thieves-in-law are part of the public consensus in Abkhazia. If your bag or your car gets stolen, there are two alternatives. You can turn to the police and maybe they will look for it. Or you turn to the “watcher” (mob authority), who is known to everyone in the district, including the police. Chances are that he will locate the stolen item faster. Officers in police uniform are not respected in Abkhazia and they do not enjoy support by their organization. People, of course, will always say that crime is bad. But they will also quickly add that «not a single thief has stolen as much as the government».

Knowing the attitude towards crime in the country, it is easy to explain why the society, which has long had reasons to oust Khadzhimba, is now seizing an opportunity in vendetta style. Ahra Avidzba, one of the field commanders of the non-recognised People’s Republic of Donetsk, whose relative was killed at Brekhalovka, has become the main leader of protest. Several hundred people under his leadership assault the presidential administration. There are no police around president Khadzhimba’s residence. The state guard does not shoot: Abkhazia is a country where everyone knows everyone. Ex-Prime Minister Sergei Shamba persuades the President to resign peacefully. Six years ago, President Alexander Ankvab also resigned peacefully under the pressure from the crowd and without protection of the security forces. Abkhazian politics has completed a circle.

«Who is our president?»

Abkhazia is a unique country in terms of the quality of institutions, the level of political competition, the degree of institutional legitimacy and the connectedness of members of society with each other. In states that have lost their territories it is believed that they are governed exclusively by the will of Moscow and Kremlin’s political masterminds who move puppets from one post-Soviet position to another. But now neither the Kremlin, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the taxi drivers in Sukhumi know, who will be the next president of Abkhazia.

There are two main candidates. Aslan Bzhania, former head of the State Security Service (the successor organization to the KGB) and a member of parliament, has gathered a team of heavyweights: ex-President Alexander Ankvab, who will become Prime minister, and ex-Prime minister and former Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba. The second candidate, Adgur Ardzinba, is the youngest presidential candidate in history. He was Minister of Economics and Deputy Prime Minister in the Khadzhimba government. He studied in Nalchik, Volgograd, Moscow and London. The third candidate is Leonid Dzapshba, a charismatic and impulsive man who received 6 % of the vote in the previous elections. Dzapshba is remembered as Minister of the Interior, who was able to get drivers to buckle up (for Abkhazia an unprecedented achievement) and who caught police officers on bribes. But there is also a widely known story about President Bagapsh, who was driving in one car and saw a large motorcade of Minister Dzapshba, asking: “Who is actually president in this country?” Dzapshba resigned after the Interior Ministry was taken by storm by people dissatisfied with his policies.

Siloviki under the sun

It is early March. Men (only) are standing around the presidential administration building in the middle of the working day. Several hundred people. They’re talking, creating an indistinct hum. From time to time, a group of about 30 people come out of the entrance, walk down the street and into another door, next to which – in the presidential wing – a window broken after the previous assault has not yet been replaced. Power in Abkhazia is close to the people – in the literal sense. There are no barriers around the presidential building. When people are dissatisfied with those in power, they simply go and talk to them. Sometimes they throw them out. In fact, two presidents of Abkhazia already fled the administration building to avoid being beaten by the crowd.

This time, supporters of Aslan Bzhaniya are shouting at acting president Valery Bganba. Like the year before, Bzhaniya returned from Sochi and fell ill just after he had crossed the border. He was returned to Russia and transported by helicopter to Krasnodar. One entire day Abkhazia was wondering whether this was a new case of poisoning or just a nervous breakdown. An unknown source provided the answer in social media: «bilateral polysegmental pneumonia of medium severity… no evidence of acute cerebral circulation disorder or poisoning with unknown substances». Since the time of Nestor Lakoba, the first leader of Soviet Abkhazia, probably poisoned by Beria, leaders of the country have had a difficult relationship with poisons.

Now supporters of Bzhaniya demand the resignation of the security forces appointed by Khadzhimba because they didn’t guarantee their candidate’s safety. Until the diagnosis will be confirmed by Bzhaniya’s staff, Adgur Ardzinba is doing the right thing by suspending the campaign thus showing respect to his opponent. The future of the presidential election is now once again unclear. Will Ardzinba and Dzapshba voluntarily withdraw their candidacies so the elections can be postponed to autumn until Bzhaniya has recovered? If not, and Bzhaniya won’t have time to get well again before the March elections, Dzapshba will not be a match to Ardzinba, but the victory in absence of the main rival will be a Pyrrhic one. According to the Bzhaniya headquarters, the elections will not be held without their candidate. In the context of Abkhazia this means the elections will be cancelled by all means, including violence. Acting president Bganba is not in control of the siloviki. He barely managed to escort men from the street shouting at him out of the office. And he could think of nothing better than to yell at Ambassador Alexey Dvinyanin to show his displeasure about Bzhaniya’s poisoning.

It is time for the government to remind everyone who has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. But the Abkhazian siloviki are rather special. The embankment is located a hundred meters from the protesting crowd (the authorities are still lucky, but protesters have already beaten up journalist Isida Chania, an act of violence unimaginable in Abkhazia so far). State security officers and traffic police are sitting on a bench looking at the sunset. They talk about fishing and politics. While the next revolution is being born in the main building of the country, the security forces around the building are nibbling sunflower seeds, relaxing in their patrol cars with their feet on the dashboard. Being a police officer in Abkhazia is not a prestigious job. Police officers do hardly enjoy government support. They can be beaten up, their cars can be trampled on and all these acts of violence can be posted on the Internet.

Competitive elections

The campaign will be tough. There will be two rounds. Aslan Bzhaniya will permanently be asked where he was during the war. The Patriotic war of 1992-1993 is the basis of Abkhazian national identity: that was 1972, the veterans aren’t old but rather middle-aged. Item number 8 of the official candidate biographies, published in the newspapers, is about their participation in the war. Bzhaniya will explain that he served in the KGB and performed special tasks. The veteran party «Amtsakhara», which supports Bzhaniya, will add to his image. Adgur Ardzinba won’t be asked about the war (he was 11 years old at the time), but about military service: «Why didn’t you serve in the army? Neither in Abkhazia nor in Russia?» He will be reminded of the collapse of the economy at the time he was minister (the global crisis will not be mentioned, of course), as well as of being trained at «Basharan» school, which was founded with funds of the preacher Gulen and assessments of which vary from «truly elitist education» to «education under the influence of Pan-Turkism». Excessive piety to Ankara on the part of Ardzinba, if any, is unlikely to please Russia. The electorate of President Khadzhimba, inherited by his minister Ardzinba, will clash with those who are tired of the current government and support the opposition (the Bzhaniya-Ankvab-Shamba triumvirate). Now try to call Abkhazian politics non-competitive and controlled by Moscow. Russia, of course, remains the main investor, a window to the world, a guarantor of external security and a manager of internal stability in Abkhazia – the candidates do not argue about foreign policy.

Whoever becomes president of Abkhazia will face three priorities. First, to restore confidence in all government institutions. Otherwise, in the eternal race of Abkhazian politics, the mob will win over time after time, and the number of people needed to illegally remove the president will be decreasing. Hence, the second goal is to improve the balance of power in the Abkhazian political system, possibly by increasing the powers of the parliament to control the government and limiting the president’s powers. The third reform must be a structural reform of the systems of power. Abkhazia needs an increase in rule of law, the destruction of the parallel justice system, governed by «thieves-in-law», and foreign investment. All this will be possible only with qualitative changes, such as increased salaries for police officers, better social guarantees and a fundamentally different attitude to officers in uniform in the public eye.

But the most important task in Abkhazia lies not before the candidates but before society. Are the people ready for change and development? The high level of corruption in the police system, the fine line for citizens to choose between police and mobsters, the huge influence of thieves-in-law, the willingness of society to accept a parallel justice system of crime, since «thieves keep their word, but the government does not», tribalism as the basis for relations between people in many areas: from road accidents and employment to the distribution of positions of power and even revolutions. Society’s unpreparedness for reforms is often explained by the «mentality», also in view of large-scale reforms in neighbouring, even more corrupt Georgia, carried out almost 20 years ago. This is what modern Abkhazia looks like. «We want order. But the government is the one that needs to start changing!» is the main phrase voiced by both experts and citizens. «Why should I respect the law, if the minister does not do so?» or «They should not ask for bribes, then I won’t try to bribe them». In a country where everyone knows each other and a few hundred people with the connivance of the law enforcement agencies are capable of changing the regime, both the government and the opposition, which usually becomes the government after each subsequent election, for some reason are not capable of starting reforms.