A last-minute deal between opposition leader Sergei Bagapsh and former Prime Minister Raul Khajimba appears to have ended a two-month stalemate over the outcome of Abkhazia's presidential elections. Yet the pact's consequences for Abkhazia's relations with Georgia remain unknown. While mutual congratulations have flowed from Sukhumi and Moscow, Tbilisi has maintained a tight-lipped silence about the compromise.
Under the terms of the December 5 agreement, brokered by Russian Deputy Prosecutor General Vladimir Kolesnikov and Abkhaz Prime Minister Nodar Khazhba, Bagapsh and Khajimba will be running mates in a second presidential election. Plans for Bagapsh’s inauguration, originally scheduled for December 6, were cancelled following announcement of the pact.
An agreement signed on December 6 stated that fresh elections would be held before January 13. The agreement also stipulates that if Khajimba pulls out of the election pact, Bagapsh will proceed with plans for his own inauguration as president of Abkhazia. If Bagapsh breaks the pact, outgoing President Vladislav Ardzinba will take "all necessary measures," the online news site Civil Georgia reported. At the same time, each candidate's armed militias will pull out of the Sokhumi government buildings and broadcast facilities they have occupied since the election dispute began in early October.
Since the October 3 presidential elections in which Bagapsh claimed victory, Abkhazia has teetered on the brink of all-out civil conflict. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Bagapsh's and Khajimba's armed supporters both hold government buildings throughout the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, while Bagapsh's militias have taken control of broadcast facilities.
Commenting on the compromise Monday to Russian television, Khajimba stated that the deal should end the violence that has brought Abkhazia to the brink of all-out civil conflict. "We have agreed that we will take all the necessary measures . . . in order to defuse the situation," Khajimba said. Bagapsh told the Russian news agency Interfax that a "cabinet of national unity" would be formed after the second round of elections and that additional legislation would be drafted to expand the powers of the Abkhazian vice-president.
Unlike the disputed presidential election in Ukraine, Russia's intervention in Abkhazia appears to have played a major role in tipping the scales in favor of its preferred candidate, Khajimba. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. On December 1, with Bagapsh's inauguration just five days away, Prime Minister's aide Gennady Bukayev announced plans to suspend railway traffic with Abkhazia, terming the move necessary to end "instability" in the breakaway region. Already, border passage with Abkhazia had been restricted and agricultural imports from the sub-tropical region halted a potentially fatal blow to the many Abkhaz farmers who depend on mandarin exports to Russia for their livelihoods.
Since de facto independence from Georgia in 1993, Abkhazia has been largely dependent economically and politically on Russia for its survival. While Bagapsh had vowed to withstand pressure from Moscow, the pact, according to one independent political analyst in Tbilisi, "shows that Russia still has a tremendous amount of influence [in the region] and that even Bagapsh can't stand up against them."
Nor has Moscow been reticent in dictating terms. Kolesnikov told a briefing in Sukhumi, the Abkhazian capital, that Abkhazia should pass new electoral legislation before fresh elections can be held and that Abkhazia should "report" to Moscow about the "removal of difficulties" that contributed to the suspension of railway traffic.
Opposition to the deal, though, is widely expected. Four explosions were heard in downtown Sukhumi on Monday near the parliament building, but no casualties were reported. Bagapsh described the attack as an attempt to further destabilize the region.
Aside from domestic opposition to the pact, Georgia's reaction to the deal could prove an equally important factor. But in keeping with its strategy since the breakaway region's October 3 presidential election, Tbilisi has for now eschewed all commentary on the Bagapsh-Khajimba pact. A spokesperson for State Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava said Monday that no plans had been made yet for a statement about the deal. Representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.
One Tbilisi-based independent analyst, however, termed the government's silence "a positive strategy." "There's a reluctance on the Abkhaz side to hear anything from Tbilisi that might suggest they're involved in the election process," the analyst said. Commenting on Bagapsh's pact with Khajimba could, in the end, weaken the opposition leader's position, she added. "The government says they don't expect any more from Bagapsh than from Khajimba, but Bagapsh has a Georgian wife, he used to work here, so, in fact, I think they have got expectations."
As Russia's relations with Abkhazia soured over the prospect of Bagapsh as president, Tbilisi began testing the waters for talks aimed at reuniting the region with Georgia, a principal goal of the Saakashvili administration. While Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has termed the October 3 presidential elections "illegitimate," he has also expressed willingness for talks with Bagapsh, telling the Georgian-Abkhazian Research Center on December 3 that "neither Georgians nor Abkhazians have any alternative to negotiations," the Tbilisi-based Russian-language paper Svobodnaya Gruzia reported. The president also expressed support for Bagapsh, saying that it is "absolutely clear" that the opposition leader expressed "the opinion of the absolute majority of Abkhazia's current residents."
Prior to the Bagapsh-Khajimba deal, the Georgian Foreign Ministry had emphasized that Tbilisi saw the December 13-14 talks of the United Nations Group of Friends of Georgia, made up of the United Kingdom, the United States, Russia, France, Germany and Georgia, as a "very important" meeting "to avoid destabilization" in Abkhazia, the online news site Civil Georgia reported.
But for now, Bagapsh has shown little interest in Saakashivili's overtures. In remarks to Interfax on December 6, the Abkhaz opposition leader was succinct: "He is the last person I would like to meet with."
Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based specialist in CIS political affairs.