Bye-Bye Bagapsh: concerns about Abkhazia’s future

The death in a Moscow hospital of Abkhaz president Sergei Bagapsh is pretty bad news. In the interim, before new presidential elections are held (they have to be, within three months), Vice President Aleksandr Ankvab will take his place, but it will be difficult to fill his shoes. I had rather more time for Bagapsh than most of the Party-apparatchik-turned-nationalist-tribunes who have colonized post-Soviet Eurasia. He was an Abkhaz nationalist but in the main managed not to let that become xenophobia. When you compare him with his fellow leader of a Georgian splinter state, South Ossetia’s Edward Kokoity, under whose administration thuggery, paramilitarism and embezzlement appear to have become the order of the day (and who is desperately trying to hold on to power), and his achievement becomes all the more striking. Kokoity clashes with Russia as often as not when Moscow asks where all the aid they send disappears to; Bagapsh tried to maintain a degree of equipoise. The irony is that although Bagapsh was criticized for his deals with Russia, he had also, before the Russo-Georgian War, been about as open as an Abkhaz leader could be to some form of negotiation with Tbilisi. (It is a further irony that his critics also disliked his efforts to allow the region’s few remaining Georgians to seek Abkhaz citizenship, as well as attempts to encourage US investment.)

One concern is that Bagapsh’s death opens the door for opposition leader Raul Khadjimba, another of those familiar post-Sov tropes, the KGB veteran who claims now to be an indomitable nationalist but is in fact strikingly close to Moscow. Khadjimba led the charge in attacking Bagapsh for his alleged concessions to Moscow, but his 2004 presidential election bid was backed by that arch-KGB-veteran Vladimir Putin, who also met with him in 2009. It is hard to be sure quite what Khadjimba does stand for, but it is hard not to suspect that he would be rather less independent-minded in practice than in promise – and his democratic credentials are still to be proven. Despite having received Bagapsh’s strong support, Ankvab has not made it clear whether he would stand for the presidency and is in any case not the strongest of figures, so it remains to be seen who could mount a credible challenge to Khadjimba.

There is also a more diffuse concern. Abkhazia, like so many micro-pseudo-states, has become something of a haven for criminals and smuggling operations. However, under Bagapsh it has managed to be less thoroughly criminalized than South Ossetia or Transdnistria. Admittedly, this is not that high a bar to jump, but it is an achievement nonetheless. My concern, though, is that the political struggle to succeed him will encourage factions to cut deals with powerful criminals in order to secure money, votes and support. This could particularly work in favor of the ethnic Georgian criminal Tariel Oniani (‘Taro’) who, while in a Russian prison, still manages a continent-wide network. Tellingly, one of his allies, vor v zakone Merab Bakhia (‘Bakha-Bakha’) has just been deported back to Abkhazia. It would be all too easy to see Abkhazia going the way of South Ossetia and becoming another criminal playground.

PS: Let the Conspiracy Theories begin!

I wondered how long before the conspiracy theories began to circulate. Here’s how the arithmetic of paranoia goes: Bagapsh was by no means a puppet of the Russians + his main rival was backed by Putin + Bagapsh died in a Russian hospital = of course, he was killed by the FSB, or whoever. Well, I’ve just had my first media enquiry along these lines, so the answer to my question proved to be that it just takes two days…

(added May 31, 2011)

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