The recent death of Sergei Bagapsh, the de facto president of Abkhazia, presents a policy challenge for the separatist territory, as well as for its political patron, Russia.
Bagapsh, who was 62 at the time of his death, was a savvy politician who could maintain a delicate balance between the desire of the Abkhaz people for genuine independence and Russia’s strategic needs. Most Abkhaz have Russian citizenship, yet many are uncomfortable with the territory’s all-but-complete dependence on Russia. Whoever follows Bagapsh, then, will be challenged to please both the Kremlin and the people, while keeping Georgia, which seeks the restoration of its pre-1992 borders, at bay.
Speculation is swirling in Sukhumi, the Abkhaz capital, about who Bagapsh’s successor will be. A special election is expected to take place within three months, with some of the early frontrunners being Sergei Shamba, Aleksandr Ankvab and Raul Khajimb. For now, it looks as if the interim leader will be Ankvab, currently the de facto vice-president.
The election has the potential to mark a watershed in Abkhazia’s political course. If the vote is widely viewed as a sham, with Moscow foisting its preferred candidate on the Abkhaz people, the result will severely weaken Abkhazia’s position relative to its aspirations for independence. It would correspondingly strengthen the contention of the Georgian government that Abkhaz independence is just a façade for Russian expansionism. If, on the other hand, Abkhaz voters are allowed to make a choice free of intimidation and threats, with the candidates enjoying relatively equal access to mass media outlets, and with little intervention from Russia, a very different message about Abkhazia could be conveyed to the world.
A fair and competitive election would not alter the Georgian, American or European view on Abkhazia, or get Tbilisi to back away from its efforts to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity. But it would offer Abkhaz leaders a chance to change the narrative about the so-called frozen conflict. An untainted election would allow Abkhaz leaders to refute assertions that they are Moscow’s puppets. It would also show that the Abkhaz people have their own preferences and should be treated accordingly, even as their aspirations for statehood remain unrecognized in the West.
In addition, good elections in Abkhazia would undermine the stated American policy of strategic patience, or stratpat, toward Abkhazia. The policy has rested on the premise that as Georgia became more prosperous and democratic, the Abkhaz people would see the value of working with Tbilisi and, ultimately, would see the advantages of reunification. Over the past couple of years stratpat has lost its luster because the Georgian government has drifted away from the ideals of the Rose Revolution. Tbilisi has also struggled to recover from the global economic slowdown. Stratpat would suffer perhaps a crippling blow if Abkhazia chooses its next leader through a relatively free-and-fair election, while Georgia’s current president contemplates ways to retain power by becoming prime minister after his presidential term expires. Such a development could force the United States to abandon stratpat altogether, and come up with a more serious and engaged policy for Georgia and Abkhazia. Ultimately, it could expose US statements about Georgia’s territorial integrity as merely platitudes with no hope of realization.
Due to Abkhazia’s contested political status, there has generally been little interest in Abkhaz elections in the West. Given that Georgia seeks to bring Abkhazia back under Tbilisi’s control, along with the fact that Abkhaz independence is recognized only by Russia and a handful of other states, this election, like previous votes in the territory, will probably not draw observers from multilateral organizations, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. International watchdog groups, other than those with strong ties to Moscow, also will undoubtedly eschew observing the special election. Thus, a significant development for Abkhazia could pass largely unnoticed in the West. If the Abkhaz special election is perceived by voters in the territory as relatively competitive and clean it will bolster their desire for independence and sharpen the contrast between Abkhazia and Georgia.
Lincoln Mitchell is an Associate Research Scholar at Columbia University's Harriman Institute. He is a frequent commenter on political development in the former Soviet Union and is currently writing a book on the Color Revolutions.