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Triple Homicide, "DPR" Militant, and President’s Resignation: What Happened in Unrecognized Abkhazia
14 January, 2020
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Protesters seize the building of the Presidential Administration of the self-proclaimed Republic of Abkhazia, several dozen people enter the building through a blown-out window on the ground floor in Sukhumi on January 9. Echo of the Caucasus Radio

On January 9, mass protests began in self-proclaimed Abkhazia demanding that "President" Raul Khajimba resign. Putin's advisor, Vladislav Surkov, who oversees Abkhazia, arrived to resolve the situation. But the events unfolded quickly: the presidential residence was besieged by several hundred dissatisfied protesters, and in less than an hour Khajimba resigned. After that, the “parliament” called a snap election. Hromadske looked into what's been happening in Abkhazia.

"President" elected by a minority

On September 8, 2019, Khajimba was elected "President" of Abkhazia for a second five-year term. In the second round of elections, 47.39% of voters voted for him, whilst his opponent, the leader of the Amtsahar opposition party, Alkhas Kvitsinia got 46.17% of the vote.

READ MORE: Abkhazia: More Than 1000 Opposition Supporters Storm Presidential Palace

The local "law" requires the winner to score 50% + 1 vote. Referring to this rule, Kvitsinia sued Abkhazia's "supreme court", demanding that the election be declared invalid. He stressed that fewer voters voted for Khajimba than the total amount of those who supported Kvitsinia and those who chose “none of the above” in the ballots (6.4%). But the "court" dismissed Kvitsinia’s claim and declared Khajimba "president." Kvitsinia, in turn, filed a cassation claim.

READ MORE: Abkhazia "President" Agrees to Resign Following Ongoing Protests

This was one of the reasons for the January confrontation in Abkhazia. However, its roots should be sought not in the September elections, but much earlier -- in the events of 2014.

Raul Khajimba, Moscow, Russia, May 15, 2015. Photo: Russian Presidential Press Service

The 2014 coup

At the end of April 2014, Khajimba, who headed the united opposition at the time, demanded that "President" Alexander Ankvab, elected from the Amtsahar Party, resign from the government and amendments to the "constitution" that would hand over part of the president's powers to parliament and government are passed. In addition, he accused Ankvab of wasting financial aid coming from Russia which makes up to 50% of the self-proclaimed republic's budget.

Ankvab refused to comply with these requirements. On May 27, 2014, the opposition convened a large-scale rally, seized the "Presidential Administration" building and proclaimed its coordinating council the highest power in Abkhazia. Ankvab called these actions a “power grab” and hid in the Russian military base in the town of Gudauta. On May 28, Assistant to the President of Russia Vladislav Surkov and Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev arrived there. With their mediation, Ankvab agreed to new talks with the opposition, and on June 1, made a televised statement announcing his resignation.

Abkhazia's parliament announced the snap presidential elections on August 24, 2014, with Khajimba and Amtsahara opposition party representative Aslan Bjania being the main candidates. Following the election, Khajimba became "president", receiving 50.57% of the vote. Prior to that, Khajimba lost the elections three times - in 2004, 2009 and 2011.

Weak rival for Khajimba

Victory in 2019 came to the "president" as a coincidence, rather than his five-year term in office, because the results of his reign caused a lot of frustration.

His main opponent, opposition leader Bjania was admitted to hospital in critical condition in April 2019. His two bodyguards were also hospitalized with similar symptoms. Although the doctors’ eventual diagnosis was "severe form of viral pneumonia", there was also a version that the cause of the sharp deterioration in health was heavy metal poisoning. The opposition camp suspected Khajimba’s involvement in the poisoning.

Kvitsinia took Bjania’s place in the election race, but it was obvious to many that this forced castling played against the opposition as the new candidate proved to be a weak contender.

Aslan Bjania. Photo: Echo of the Caucasus Radio

Triple homicide in Sukhumi, Khajimba’s guard, and DPR militant

Two crime bosses -- Astamur Shamba (Astika) and Alhas Avidzba (Khasika) -- were killed in Sukhumi at San Remo Restaurant on November 22, 2019. During a shootout, a restaurant waitress was killed and two other people were injured.

A rally began in Sukhumi Central Square demanding that they investigate the killings. Protesters accused law enforcement agencies of inaction and delaying the investigation. On December 2, Abkhazia's parliament dismissed Prosecutor General Zurab Achba and his deputy Eshsou Kakalia, while Raul Khajimba dismissed Interior Minister Garri Arshba.

As Novaya Gazeta journalist Ilya Azar, who is now in Abkhazia, told hromadske, Shamba and Avidzba were very popular with the people. They were considered "pro-Abkhazian", unlike most local criminal leaders who belong to the “Kutaisi clan” and redirect cash flows to Georgia. In addition, Shamba and Avidzba fought the local drug mafia, making them heroes in the eyes of many.

"Protesters treated them with great affection, calling them 'holy men'," Azar explained to hromadske.

On December 15, the Prosecutor General's Office of Abkhazia published a report that a suspect in the triple murder had been detained in Sukhumi, but his name was not called. But it soon became known from unofficial sources that the detainee was Demur Akhalaya, the brother of one of Khajimba's guards, Dato Akhalaya. Dato himself was arrested on December 30.

Khajimba's involvement in the murder of criminal authorities has been the catalyst for a new round of protests, one of the leaders of which is the cousin of slain Avidzba - Arkhan, who fought in 2014-2015 on the side of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” and even received the title of “DPR war hero” in February 2015. Upon learning of the murder, Avidzba returned home to find the perpetrators.

Resignation and early elections

On January 9, 2020, the "cassation panel of the Supreme Court of Abkhazia" had to decide on Kvitsinia’s claim. But the hearing did not take place because the court rejected the nomination of one of the judges, Roman Kvarchia, whom the opposition considers interested because he was proposed by the “president”. The new composition was meant to be formed within two months, and only then could Kvitsinia's appeal be considered again.

In response, the opposition assembled a rally demanding that Khajimba resign and stormed the “presidential administration” building, setting up its headquarters there.

"After the capture of the presidential palace, it became clear that Khajimba does not control the law enforcement agencies, and the situation is getting out of his control," Novaya’s Azar told hromadske.

On January 10, Abkhazia's "Supreme Court" canceled the results of the September "elections", thus satisfying Kvitsinia's claim, and called a snap "presidential election" for March 22.

The very same day, as in 2014, Vladislav Surkov and Rashid Nurgaliyev (now Deputy Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation) flew to Abkhazia. What they talked about with Khajimba is unknown, but on January 12, one hour after protesters seized his residence, Khajimba resigned. On January 13, it became known that he would not participate in the snap elections.

The political future of "DPR hero" Avidzba remains uncertain. He is not yet 35 years of age, so he cannot run for president. At the same time, according to Azar, during the storming of the "presidential administration," Avidzba seemed to be the real leader of the opposition, who delivered one of the most motivating speeches at the rally, calling for the unity of the Abkhaz people. He is likely to become one of the prominent figures in the political life of the self-proclaimed republic in the near future, especially since he already has some experience: in 2017 he was a candidate in the parliamentary elections.

As for how events in Abkhazia have evolved since Khajimba's resignation, Azar said, the situation has already calmed down. Parliament has appointed Prime Minister Valeriy Bganba as the acting "President". The protesters were satisfied with the announcement of early elections. Politicians are gearing up for a new race, with Khajimba’s former rival Aslan Bjania announcing his participation.

/By Vsevolod Lazutin