Last Sunday, the breakaway Georgian republic of Abkhazia elected a new president.
But Abkhazia’s new leader, former opposition leader Raul Khadzhimba (pictured above), didn’t receive the traditional cascade of congratulatory telephone calls from world leaders. Instead, he’ll face a world almost wholly united in non-recognition of his victory. None of NATO, the United States, the European Union nor Georgia’s prime minister Irakli Garibashvili consider the elections legitimate.
That’s because only four countries currently recognize Abkhazia’s sovereignty: Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru. Nicaragua and Venezuela are governed by socialist presidents friendly to Russia. Nauru, an 8.1 square-mile island northwest of Australia with just over 9,000 residents, established diplomatic relations with Abkhazia in 2009, allegedly after demanding from Russia $50 million in funding for economic and social projects.
Since the 2008 military showdown between Russian president Vladimir Putin and former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, Abkhazia has existed in a state of international limbo, essentially occupied by Russian soldiers and governed by separatists.
But the cause of Abkhazian independence goes back to the breakup of the Soviet Union when Abkhazia, an autonomous republic within Georgia, wanted its own state and when Abkhaz separatists fought and won a bloody 13-month war in 1992 and 1993 against the newly independent Georgian state.
Though the international community thinks about Abkhazia today mostly in the context of the 2008 spat between Russia and Georgia, which also left South Ossetia under Russian and separatist control, Abkhazia has essentially been a self-governing, de facto independent territory for over two decades.
Khadzhimba won 51.52% of the vote in Sunday’s election, besting Aslan Bzhania, the head of Abkhazia’s state security service, who won 36.59%, and two minor candidates.
Khadzhimba, lost Abkhazia’s highly contentious 2004 presidential election to Sergei Bagapsh, then an opposition leader while Khadzhimba was serving as prime minister at the time under Abkhazia’s first de facto president Vladislav Ardzinba (though Bagapsh, too, had served as prime minister from 1997-99 under Ardzinba, who led the military forces against the Georgian army in 1992-93). Khadzhimba, a former KGB agent, had the support, however, of both Ardzinba and Putin, which made it all the more surprising when he lost the race to Bagapsh.
In a post-election power-sharing agreement, Bagapsh agreed to appoint Khadzhimba as vice president, and the two ran together on a ‘unity ticket’ in a rerun of elections in January 2005. It’s a position Khadzhimba held until the subsequent 2009 election, during which Bagapsh defeated Khadzhimba by a four-to-one margin, after which Khadzhimba wasn’t invited back as vice president.
But Bagapsh died in office in 2011 after complications from surgery in Moscow, and his former prime minister and new vice president, Aleksandr Ankvab, took power. Ankvab won a new election in August of the same year in his own right, when Khadzhimba finished in third place.
The tumult in the Russian near-abroad this year, however, may have stirred unrest throughout Abkhazia as well, culminating in anti-government protests that forced Ankvab to flee office in June, precipitating the snap August presidential election that otherwise would have been held in 2016.
It’s difficult to know the exact reason for those protests, but they ultimately share little in common with the upheaval in Ukraine. The opposition, led by Khadzhimba, claimed at the time that they were fighting against corruption and mismanagement, and that’s certainly credible, because Abkhazia isn’t exactly the world’s most inviting platform for investment and Ankvab wasn’t known as the world’s most honest leader. But Ankvab’s supporters argued, with enough credibility of their own, that the protests were animated by anti-Georgian sentiment that opposed the relatively liberal policies Ankvab adopted toward ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia. Russia, which always preferred Khadzhimba, wouldn’t intervene on Ankvab’s behalf when it appeared so likely that Khadzhimba would win the presidency.
So whatever the reason for the protests and Ankvab’s ouster, it’s a mild victory, at least, for Moscow, though Georgian and Western critics worried that, in the wake of Russia’s March annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, Putin would use the opportunity to annex Abkhazia into Russia. That didn’t happen, but in Khadzhimba, Russia will find the most agreeable Abkhazian president since Abkhazia’s war of independence two decades ago.
Abkhazia lies in a tough neighborhood, nestled along the Black Sea in the Transcaucasus, or South Caucasus, that also includes Georgia, as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan, which tussle over their own contested territory in Nagorno-Karabakh. Across the mountains, in the North Caucasus, lies Sochi, the host city of Russia’s Winter Olympics earlier this year, as well as the Russian republics of Chechnya and Dagestan, the site of even more conflict in the past two decades.
Unlike in South Ossetia, where, although economic conditions are just as difficult, a merger with the Russian republic of North Ossetia-Alania seems likelier in the future, neither Khadzhimba nor Ankvab advocate full union with Russia, though Khadzhimba advocated ‘closer ties’ with Russia. Abkhazia uses the Russian ruble and its economy, which hardly produces more than a tasty crop of tangerines for export, is highly dependent upon Russia. It’s home to just 243,000 people, and the demographic profile of the region has been at the heart of the tussle between Sukhumi, the unofficial Abkhazian capital, and Tbilisi since the end of the Soviet Union. Originally its own Socialist Soviet Republic within the Soviet Union, it was joined with Georgia in 1925, and by the fall of the USSR, ethnic Georgians constituted a majority of its population. That changed with the ethnic cleansing that accompanied the Abkhazian war in 1992-93, when many ethnic Georgians were killed or forced from their homes.
Today, ethnic Georgians predominate in the Gali region, where Ankvab had proffered Abkhaz passports, to widespread disapproval among the ethnic Abkhaz. Though they represented less than 18% of Abkhazia’s population in 1989, ethnic Abkhaz today amount to nearly 51%, with 19% of the region identifying as ethnic Georgian, nearly 17.5% as ethnic Armenian and another 9% as ethnic Russian. The precarious Abkhaz majority highlights the explosive ethnic politics of the region.