Formation of a New “Political Elite” in Abkhazia - Who Will Replace the Old “Elite?”
Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst
It has been 28 years since the end of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict (1992-1993). During this time, a “political elite” has been formed in the de facto republic of Abkhazia, where a person's participation in the conflict (in Abkhazia, referred to as the Abkhaz People's Patriotic War) determines his/her influence. The status of war veteran is a prerequisite for participating in local politics, and the lack of evidence of involvement in the war is the biggest compromising factor.
Much time has passed since the end of the war, and the “political elite” of Abkhazia is being replenished with new members: people who have no experience of participation in the war because they were children at the time or were born after it. In this article, we will try to show you how the process of rejuvenation of the “political elite” of Abkhazia is happening, and what it could mean in the context of relations with Official Tbilisi and Georgians in general.
Demographics of the Political Elite
President and Vice-President
Aslan Bzhania (1963), the de facto President of Abkhazia, is a member of the Old Guard. During the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, he worked for the Separatist Security Committee in Gudauta. The de facto Vice-President, Badra Gunba (1981), represents a new generation that did not take part in the war because of his age.
In the 2020 “presidential elections,” Bzhania's rival was Adgur Ardzinba, who was born in 1981 and did not participate in the war due to his age. He is currently the Leader of the Abkhaz People's Movement opposition public organization.
The de facto Prime Minister of Abkhazia, Alexander Ankvab (1952), is a member of the Old Guard. From 1981 to 1990, he worked in Tbilisi, one of his posts being the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs. During the war, he was a member of the Separatist Defense Committee, and he held the post of de facto President in 2011-2014.
The de facto government consists of four vice premiers and eleven ministers, seven of whom were 13 years old or younger when the war broke out in 1992, while two ministers were born in the 1990s: Anri Bartsits (1990), the Minister of Justice, and Inal Gablia (1991), the Minister of Education and Language Policy. Worth mentioning is that the Minister of Tourism, Teimuraz Khishba, was born in Tbilisi in 1986.
Unlike the government, the age ratio in the parliament is in favor of the Old Guard, although the tendency of rejuvenating MPs is clearly being observed. Only 15 of the current 35 MPs were under the age of 15 during the war, and twelve of them were born in the 1980s.
Formation of a New Political Elite
The number of ministers and MPs who did not participate in the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict is gradually increasing among the political elite. Those who were born in the “independent” Republic of Abkhazia and know about the Georgian-Abkhazian war only from family, relatives, school, university or media, are slowly coming to the fore.
Recent projects implemented by Inal Ardzinba, a former employee of the Russian Presidential Administration, might be viewed as an attempt to renew the political elite. Ardzinba was born in Sukhumi in 1990 and was educated in Russia. He left the Russian President Administration in 2018. Due to his surname (he is a relative of the first “president” of Abkhazia, Vladislav Ardzinba) and his connections to Russia, his political ambitions are widely discussed. He is not of age to run for “president” yet, but the campaign to identify new leaders, politicians or public officials can be considered as part of Ardzinba's political project. Ardzinba himself speaks a lot about the need to renew the political elite, for which the first steps have already been taken.
Future of Abkhazia’s Social Platform
Currently, the platform is a non-governmental organization aimed at assisting the youth of Abkhazia in internship programs and admission to Russian universities. The driving force of the organization is young people under age 35. The founding congress of the platform was held on June 15, 2021, in Sokhumi. Bzhania and Ardzinba were elected as the Honorary Chairmen.
The Pride of Abkhazia Competition
In 2020, the Pride of Abkhazia competition for young managers was held on the basis of the Future of Abkhazia social platform. The competition is aimed at identifying and supporting talented youth of Abkhazia. According to Ardzinba, the competition is a kind of a “social lift” for managers and will serve as an impetus for the renewal of the state apparatus through honest and competent representatives of the younger generation.
The first competition, with the slogan - New Leaders for the Future of Abkhazia, was held in three stages and revealed five winners on August 25, 2020. The finalists of the competition, with the participation of the Scientific-Research Financial Institute of the Ministry of Finance of Russia, developed a strategic program of reforms for the Future of Abkhazia. The winner of the competition, Said Bey, who is a school principal, held a presentation of the program in November 2020. The main objectives of the program are reforms, transparency of government, and increasing the role of professional youth in the decision-making process.
Within the framework of the program, measures have been developed to promote the socio-economic development of Abkhazia and to calm the socio-political situation. The program also provides for the establishment of a multifunctional center on the principle of “one window” for the provision of public services, the creation of an IT park, and the adoption of legislation against “thieves in law.”
Ardzinba's Political Plans
The Future of Abkhazia social platform and the competition held within the platform can be considered as part of Ardzinba's big political plan, a fact he does nothing to hide. Prior to the 2020 “presidential election”, Inal Ardzinba openly stated that he planned to form a new political party after the election (no party has yet been established). Although Ardzinba has long been suspected of political ambitions in Abkhazia, this was his first public statement about his involvement in Abkhazian politics. Interestingly, with the support of the platform, it is planned to qualify lawyers and specialists for the 2022 “parliamentary elections.”
At Ardzinba's initiative, and with Bzhania's support, the “Personnel Reserve of the President of the Republic of Abkhazia” was established. Representatives of the platform serve their internships in Russian public institutions. For example, the Coordinator of the platform, Milana Khashba, underwent qualification program at the agency of Dmitry Peskov, the Press Secretary of the Russian President. Thanks to Inal Ardzinba's Russian connections, the Abkhaz youth serve their internship in Russian public institutions.
Dialogue with Tbilisi – Different Opinions
Bzhania and his closest comrades are members of the Old Guard and had relations with the Georgian side until the 1990s. Their views on a dialogue with Tbilisi differ from opinions of the post-war generation, who are more radical on relations with Tbilisi.
Last year, Bzhania and his “Secretary” of the Security Council, Sergey Shamba (1951), openly pointed to the need for a new platform (in addition to the Geneva format) for relations with Tbilisi. Harsh assessments from the public and the opposition followed the “Foreign Policy Concept of the Republic of Abkhazia”, adopted on December 4, 2020. According to the Concept, the Abkhaz side agreed on the creation of an additional format of negotiations to discuss the issues that could not be resolved within the Geneva format. This approach generated internal pressure and the controversial phrase was removed from the Concept on March 25, 2021.
Benur Kviraia, the Assistant to Bzhania, resigned from his post a few days before his visit to Tbilisi, where he discussed the possibility of attracting investments with his acquaintances. Although Kviraia is a war participant and can’t be considered as a “pro-Georgian,” his meetings in Tbilisi and a video stream spread on social networks, where Kviraia drinks a toast to his Georgian friend, caused great consternation.
The younger generation, who have fewer contacts with Georgia, have different views compared to the Old Guards. Unlike the older generation of Abkhaz politicians, they enthusiastically support integration with Russia. They are educated mainly in Russia, see the opportunity for career advancement in Russia, and are most affected by anti-Georgian propaganda. The new generation believes that the precondition for a dialogue with Georgia should only be the recognition of Abkhazia's independence. Ardzinba also openly stated his position on the subject.
- The process of renewal/rejuvenation of the Abkhazian political elite is underway. The number of people in the government or parliament who did not take part in the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict is growing.
- In the next 15-20 years, the political elite of Abkhazia will be completely replaced by the generation that did not take part in the war and/or was born in the “independent Republic of Abkhazia.” This generation, thanks to local and Russian propaganda, views Official Tbilisi as the number one enemy, and perceives it as a major threat to Abkhaz “statehood.”
- The Future of Abkhazia social platform (project of Inal Ardzinba) is an instrument for renewal/rejuvenation of the political elite. Cadres identified within the platform may join politics after the 2022 “parliamentary elections”.
- Despite the war with the Georgians, the Old Guards of Abkhazian politics (Bzhania-Ankvab-Shamba) believe that the development of relations in various formats with Official Tbilisi is necessary to balance the Russian influence. The approach of the new generation is radically different, more anti-Georgian, and clearly oriented towards Russia.
- Observations of the development of events in Abkhazia (including the removal of the controversial phrase from the Foreign Policy Concept, a sharp reaction to the visit of Bzhania's former aide to Tbilisi) show that the idea of a dialogue with Tbilisi has no common public/political support. Cooperation with Georgians and attempts at dialogue are considered as a political compromise.
- In this situation, it will be possible to use the available small resources and develop relations with the political elite of Abkhazia in various formats only during the next 15-20 years. After a complete renewal of the political elite with the new generation, which will be more hostile and pro-Russian towards Georgians, the conversation with Sukhumi will become a more difficult task.
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