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Q&A: Crisis in Sokhumi and its Potential Consequences
Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 15 Jan.'18 / 12:43

Pardoning and the subsequent release of Giorgi Lukava, a 51-year-old ethnic Georgian, from Abkhazia’s Dranda prison has stirred anti-government protests in the region, with opposition members and activists slamming Abkhaz leader Raul Khajimba for his decision to hand over the prisoner to Tbilisi and demanding his resignation.

We have asked Tom de Waal, Olesya Vartanyan, Giorgi Kanashvili and Liz Fuller to comment on recent protests, asking them to assess the underlying reasons and the potential consequences of the crisis.

In your opinion, what were the underlying reasons that transformed the protest with Giorgi Lukava’s release into a major political crisis in Abkhazia? How serious could be its potential consequences?

Tom de Waal, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Europe

Political life in Abkhazia has always been fierce. Russian recognition and the perception that the threat of Georgia had been neutralized in 2008 strangely gave Abkhazia the luxury of being able to have even more turbulent domestic politics. That turbulence increased with the ousting of Alexander Ankvab in 2014 and the early elections that brought Raul Khajimba to the presidency. But Khajimba has never had great authority and has looked more like an arbiter and compromise candidate than a real leader.

That is the context to the current political crisis. The extradition of a Georgian fighter was always going to be unpopular - antagonism to Georgia is the one thing that most political forces can agree on. But it looks unlikely that is enough to get Khajimba removed from office. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: To lose one president early may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness. He is more likely to survive, with weakened authority.

Olesya Vartanyan, Analyst, International Crisis Group

The release of the prisoner was very poorly prepared. There was no official information published, and controversial facts quickly spread through region’s media landscape. If only it had communicated better, the de facto leadership could have better chances to avoid this crisis.

Even before the prisoner was released, the mood of protest had already been rising strongly in Abkhazia. Public discontent was mainly fuelled by a poor tourist season and increased criminality. During my meetings in Sukhumi last August, local politicians were already voicing their criticism of poor governance, increased interference by Russian officials and lack of any prospects for reform in this de facto entity. There seemed few hopes for economy development either, since Russian financial support has already been on decline since the 2014 Crimea annexation.

The ongoing crisis does not promise to be short-lived. Despite traditional family holidays, Sukhumi saw the biggest crowd of protesters in years, and they did not want to leave streets even when asked to do so by the most important people in this small society. The local opposition is now trying to capitalize on protests against the prisoner release. On the other hand, this story turned Mr. Khajimba into the main object of the public’s growing discontent. Any future moves he makes are sure to face serious resistance and potential protests. This situation will make it much more difficult for him to stay in office until the end of his current term in 2019.

Giorgi Kanashvili, Executive Director, Caucasian House

The recent crisis in Abkhazia was deeply rooted in problems that have not been addressed by Khajimba and his predecessors, including corruption, rising crime rates, nepotism, clan-based management and the general unfavorable socio-economic situation in Abkhazia.

Although Khajimba himself was appealing to these very problems right after his appointment, and there was a wide-spread feeling in the society that he could address these problems, at this stage, both his supporters and opponents understand that he is not the figure, who can implement major reforms. This is exactly why Khajimba’s presidency starts to look like a yet another protracted crisis.

Nothing can be ruled out but it seems Khajimba will get through this crisis. Regardless of how the crisis will unfold, however, the strategic winner will be the Russian Federation; the more vulnerable the Abkhaz society is, the more compliant it will be towards Moscow’s policies and initiatives. Permanent, but controllable crises in Abkhazia are only in Russia’s interests.

Liz Fuller, Caucasus Analyst

I think there are two key aspects to last week’s standoff in Sukhumi. The first is the public protest over de facto Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba’s decision to hand over Giorgi Lukava to the Georgian authorities. The second, and to my mind far more important in the long term, is the pioneering role of the new Abkhaz parliament elected in March 2017 in seeking to uphold the provisions of the constitution.

On the one hand, it was understandable that people should take to the street to protest the release of a man jailed for 20 years on charges of kidnapping and murdering Abkhaz officials, even if some of the protesters simply availed themselves of a new opportunity to register their anger at a leadership they regard as corrupt and inept. On the other hand, the more than 1,000 participants reportedly included supporters of the government as well as the opposition, which could imply that Khajimba’s support base is starting to crumble.

In addition, the creation of a parliament commission to assess the legality and constitutionality of President Khajimba’s decision was an important step towards strengthening parliamentary democracy, and for that reason poses a far more serious ongoing threat. In recent months, pro-government and opposition lawmakers have increasingly worked together to address the serious socio-economic problems Abkhazia faces: it was supporters of the current leadership who in late December initiated a vote of no-confidence in Prime Minister Beslan Bartsits which failed by just two votes.

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