Controversy continues to swirl around the assassination attempt on Abkhazian Prime Minister Aleksander Ankvab. Government officials and independent analysts in Abkhazia and Georgia blame organized criminal gangs for the incident. But they differ -- at least publicly -- on the potential affiliation of the attackers.
Meanwhile, the attack promises to sow further discord between Tbilisi and the Kremlin, following a statement from Moscow that the incident could undermine the Georgian-Abkhaz peace process. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. While emphasizing its own commitment to peace, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that the February 28 attack was "clearly intended to destabilize the situation there which has been normalizing [and] to complicate the chances for a Georgian-Abkhazian [political] settlement."
Tbilisi is interpreting the Russian statement as a sign that the Kremlin is not interested in conducting serious peace talks. In a March 1 statement, the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed "bewilderment" at Moscow's declaration, adding that the announcement appeared intended to derail a peace deal. "A cause of concern is the fact that the Russian side, with this artificially produced situation, puts in doubt the resumption of negotiations," the Georgian statement said.
Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh has expressed his willingness to hold negotiations with Georgia, provided that Tbilisi agrees to "the non-use of force" as the basis for the talks. In recent weeks, Georgia and Russia have been engaged in a battle of words over which side has the stronger commitment to a peaceful resolution of the 12-year territorial dispute.
"The Russian statement is really funny," said political analyst Paata Zakareishvili. "Abkhazia is basically part of Russia and their business interests run strong there. [T]he government structures have their own economic interests in Abkhazia, and with Ankvab's arrival, there's going to be a clash of those interests."
The 52-year-old Ankvab came under heavy automatic gunfire late on February 28 while traveling from the Abkhazian capital Sukhumi to his residence in the nearby town of Gudauta. He was not harmed during the attack.
Following his appointment as prime minister on February 14, Ankvab launched a campaign to stamp out the organized crime groups that control much of the separatist region's economy. A former Moscow businessman, Ankvab served as deputy interior minister for the Soviet Republic of Georgia, and as interior minister for Abkhazia after the Black Sea region broke away from Tbilisi in the early 1990s. Authorities blocked the minister's registration application for the region's October 2004 presidential elections, thereby prompting Ankvab to throw his support behind Bagapsh's candidacy.
Bagapsh said criminal elements eager to disrupt Ankvab's anti-corruption campaign were behind the assassination attempt. Speaking at a March 1 news conference, Ankvab said the attack would not cause him to change policy. "Some people in Abkhazia cannot stomach our reforms. They don't want to live according to the law and don't want the law to operate in Abkhazia," the state-run Russian news agency RIA-Novosti reported Ankvab as saying.
Abkhazia recently banned the export of wood and raised prices for scrap metal -- two changes that could run up against smugglers' interests, observers say. Abkhazian Interior Minister Otar Khetsia, a Bagapsh appointee, also recently announced plans to fire half of his personal staff in an effort to eliminate those with ties to organized crime.
The Georgian government appears to support Ankvab's explanation for the attack, though many officials in Tbilisi believe that groups linked to former Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba -- an Ankvab opponent who left office in January 2005 -- carried out the assassination attempt. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Georgian analysts, meanwhile, believe that there may be a Russian connection. "What is happening there is a fight between different interest groups within the Russian Federation and it was just projected onto Ankvab," said Temuri Yakobashvili, executive vice-president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies.
Tensions have simmered in Sukhumi since Moscow failed to block the election of Bagapsh as president in October 2004 in favor of its preferred candidate, then Prime Minister Raul Khajimba, Georgian observers believe. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive] The election controversy brought Abkhazia to the brink of civil war, until a power-sharing deal was forged between Bagapsh and Khajimba, now the breakaway territory's vice-president. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"The differences between these groups would have come up [eventually]," said Yakobashvili. "The signs of unhappiness were already in place before this happened."
Zakareishvili suggested more clashes could be in the offing. "Ankvab is no democrat. I'd expect him to respond quite strongly and fight these forces."
Representatives of Bagapsh's administration have so far steered clear of suggesting any Russian association with the attack. Neither have they sought to implicate Georgia's leadership. A March 3 working visit to Moscow by Bagapsh and Vice President Raul Khajimba has been postponed, but, according to the Abkhazian leader, only because of celebrations related to International Women's Day on March 8.
Analysts in Tbilisi say the attack augurs poorly for Abkhazia's political stability. Bagapsh, however, has sought to dispel any impression that his administration lacks unity. "There are no differences within the leadership of Abkhazia," Bagapsh said in a March 2 interview with Interfax. "We are working together well and I totally rule out political factors behind the attempt on the life of the republic's prime minister."