Friday, 3 June 2011

One Man’s Magnitude, by Sergey Markedonov

Whoever Will Be the New Head of Abkhazia, He Will Have Difficulty Coming Out of Bagapsh’s Shadow
Special to Russia Profile - 06/02/2011

On May 29, 2011, the second President of Abkhazia Sergei Bagapsh died in Moscow. It’s impossible to exaggerate his importance as a politician and a man in the modern history of the republic: the beginning of its legitimization will always be connected with his name. Since 2008, Abkhazia's independence has been recognized by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru. Within two days of Bagapsh's death, the pacific island of Vanuatu had joined in. And although it is now impossible to say for sure just what kind of country would join this “gang of five” (if any), Abkhazia now has its ticket into the world.

Representatives of the European Union are now saying that a dialogue needs to be established with the republic, even without officially recognizing it. Several detailed publications have now come out in the United States on this very topic (by Alexander Cooley, Lincoln Mitchell, Cory Welt and Samuel Charap).

In Georgia, Bagapsh is seen as the leader of a separatist institution and a “Russian puppet.” As a result, it is understandable that the death of the Abkhaz president passed virtually unnoticed in the country. The only exception to the rule was the “political retiree” Eduard Shevardnadze, who came across the future leader of Abkhazia in his Komsomol and party work in the Soviet period. At that time, natives of Abkhazia rarely worked in the capital of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. It stands to reason that this experience later turned out to be extremely useful to Bagapsh, because being a party activist in the republic during the “stagnation period” didn’t teach Marxist-Leninist dogmas as much as it gave the ability to find complex solutions and to mediate the divergent interests of different interest groups.

Meanwhile, these leadership qualities would subsequently make Abkhazia’s second president highly sought after in his homeland. In 2004 Abkhazia entered the presidential campaigning season, and by then Bagapsh’s predecessor Vladislav Ardzinba, the charismatic leader of the national movement during perestroika, the fall of the Soviet Union and the war with Georgia, had virtually left his post due to serious illness. With the Kremlin’s support all administrative resources in Abkhazia worked in favor of Raul Khadjimba, Bagapsh’s opponent. However Bagapsh not only managed to win the elections, but also managed to avoid internal political confrontation and to find common ground with Moscow. The 2004 campaign refuted many of the West’s well-established clichés concerning “Russian puppets.” The second president of Abkhazia won against the will of the Kremlin, but he didn’t turn his victory into a nationalist anti-Russian weapon. On the contrary, Russia recognized Abkhazia’s independence namely under Bagapsh’s government, although this decision still spurs arguments and controversy inside Russia itself. However, today it defines that new status-quo in the Greater Caucasus, whether we like it or not.

Sergei Bagapsh closed an old chapter in Abkhazia's history and started a new one. Largely thanks to Bagapsh, the highest office in the republic was peacefully handed over from one person to the next. Bagapsh maintained the political opposition (not even persecuting those who had openly campaigned against him during elections) and the freedom of the press. In 2008, with Russia’s help, he obtained a guarantee of safety and noninterference on behalf of Georgia. At the same time, Bagapsh swept the “Georgian factor” under the rug and began massive “Russianization,” meaning everything from the penetration of Russian business giants (Rosneft) to the appearance of military bases and Russian border guards, from questions of property and the involvement of the Russian Orthodox Church in the religious life of the republic to interpretations of the historical topics of the 19th century. Today Russia’s role, and the price of its friendship to be more specific, is the leading topic of internal discussion in Abkhazia.

After Bagapsh's death, this topic will become one of the central elements in the presidential election campaigns. Meanwhile, passions will flare in the course of the battle for the presidential seat. Abkhazia’s second president left this world without naming a successor, without a political “last will and testament.” Consequently all contenders for the post will be starting from “square one.” The acting Vice President Alexander Ankvab will probably have an administrative and psychological advantage. Like Bagapsh, he also has experience working in Georgia during the Soviet years (in the Ministry of Internal Affairs). He has the reputation of an uncompromising opponent of corruption (there have been several attempts against his life), as a harsh and open person that stands in the way of many. Ankvab could not get along with Ardzinba in the 1990s, so he was forced to spend many years practicing business in Moscow, without becoming just a passive observer. Ankvab’s support during 2004 and 2005 meant a lot to Bagapsh’s ultimate success. Subsequently he worked on Bagapsh’s team as a prime minister and then as his vice president. And that’s why this person will contend for Abkhazia’s second president’s political legacy more than any other.

Sergei Shamba, Abkhazia’s chief diplomat for many years, may also become a strong player in the elections, since he is involved in all meaningful forms of negotiation with Georgia, the Russian Federation, international institutions, and ambassadors in Tbilisi. For the last two years Sahmba, having been named the head of the government, advanced considerably in the field of internal politics. We shouldn’t also discount Raul Khadjimba as a potential contender. Yes, he was defeated in the 2004 to 2005 and the 2009 elections. But let’s not forget that in 2004, he was Vladislav Ardzinba’s successor and had the Kremlin’s support. During the Soviet period Khadjimba served in the KGB, and has established good contacts with the Russian “siloviki.” Theoretically, all this could play in Khadjimba’s favor after Bagapsh’s death.

No matter who we will call the next president of Abkhazia, he will inevitably have to address Bagapsh’s legacy in his work. He’s also doomed to face incessant “comparisons” to his celebrated predecessor.

Sergei Markedonov, Ph.D., is a political analyst and a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Russia and Eurasia Program, Washington, DC.

Source: Russia Profile

No comments:

Post a Comment