“Doberman” as a Minister: Inal Ardzinba’s Prospects and Challenges
Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst
On November 17, 2021, the de facto President of Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhania, appointed Inal Ardzinba as the de facto Minister of Foreign Affairs of the separatist republic. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov congratulated the new minister on his appointment. Mr. Ardzinba's involvement in Abkhaz politics has long been talked about, and rumors of his possible appointment as a “minister” were first voiced last summer. As such, the news came as no surprise. What might the appearance of the “Doberman” (colleagues in Russia nicknamed Inal thus for his strict working style), who has been working in Russia since graduating school, mean for Abkhaz politics?
Who is Inal Ardzinba?
The Son of a Good Family
Inal Ardzinba, who was born in Sokhumi in 1990, meets all the criteria of having been brought up in a good family. His father, Batu Ardzinba, a participant in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict and a cavalryman of the Order of Leon, is a relation of the first “president” of Abkhazia. Inal’s mother, Manana Tarba, is a physician at the Republic Hospital. Inal's uncle, Salibei (Aka) Ardzinba, was also a prominent person- one of the founders of the Amtsakhara movement of war veterans, a participant in the Georgian-Abkhaz war, a battalion commander, and a hero of Abkhazia who was killed in Moscow in 2003.
Inal Ardzinba graduated from school in Sokhumi. Due to his high academic performance, he continued his studies at the Faculty of International Economics and World Politics at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, which he graduated in 2012. During his student days, Ardzinba published a book titled ‘National Economy of Abkhazia.’
Inal Adzinba chaired Russian delegations at the G8 Youth Summit in Washington, DC, in 2012, at the G20 Youth Summit in St. Petersburg, and at the G8 Youth Summit in London in 2013. At the St. Petersburg summit, he personally presented the final declaration to the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. In 2014, he topped the rating of Young Leaders of Member States of the Eurasian Economic Union, Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali Region. In 2017, Vladimir Putin awarded him the insignia of the 3rd Class Actual State Counselor of the Russian Federation.
Inal Ardzibna and Vladimir Putin
In 2012, Inal Ardzinba got a job at the largest Russian insurance company, Rosgosstrakh, as the Assistant to the president of the company for public relations, but since 2014, his career has been linked to the Russian Presidential Administration. For some period, he worked in the Directorate for Social and Economic Cooperation with the CIS Member States, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and was the right-hand man of influential Russian politician Vladislav Surkov. During his work with Surkov, Ardzinba oversaw destabilization projects in Ukraine’s regions, a fact which put him on the wanted list. In March 2016, Mikheil Saakashvili, the ex-president of Georgia and the Governor of the Odessa region, accused Ardzinba of implementing the “Bessarabia Project,” which envisaged the creation of the People’s Republic of Bessarabia in the Odessa region.
At the end of 2018, Inal Ardzinba had to leave the Presidential Administration and became Chairman of the Inter-Confessional Youth Council under Russian Patriarch Kirill.
Getting Ready for Abkhaz Politics
Even while working in the Russian Presidential Administration, Inal Ardzinba started implementing projects in Abkhazia, the content of which indirectly hinted at his political ambitions. In 2017, the Goodwill Ambassadors of Abkhazia charity organization was founded with his support. In 2020, on the basis of the Future of Abkhazia social platform, a Pride of Abkhazia competition was held on Ardzinba’s initiative. The competition was aimed at identifying young leaders. The winners of the competition took on internships at Russian government agencies thanks to Ardzinba’s Russian connections.
Before the 2020 “presidential elections” in Abkhazia, Ardzinba openly stated that he planned to establish a new political party after the “elections” (no such party has yet been established). Although Abkhazia has long suspected Inal Ardzinba's political ambitions, this was his first public statement about involvement in Abkhaz politics. It was immediately announced that the training of qualified lawyers and relevant specialists for the 2022 “parliamentary elections” would begin with the support of the social platform. As expected, Inal's appointment as a “minister” will affect these plans.
What to Expect
“Russia’s Man” in Abkhazia
Inal Ardzinba's predecessor Daur Kove was the “Foreign Minister” from the presidency of Raul Khajimba. Kove retained his post after Khajimba’s resignation in January 2020, presumably thanks to a positive recommendation from the Russian Foreign Ministry. He did not make any noticeable mistakes in his work, which is reflected in Bzhania’s intention to appoint him as the “Deputy Secretary of the Security Council.”
The appointment of Inal Ardzinba may indicate that Russia is trying to promote its own “people” in Abkhaz politics; those who can further accelerate the process of integration with Russia. Although the Abkhazian political elite is pro-Russian and has no anti-Russian sentiments, “local” cadres are obstructing the resolution of some issues in relations with Russia, such as issuing Abkhaz passports to Russian citizens, granting foreign (Russian) citizens the right to purchase real estate in Abkhazia, and alienating energy sector facilities to Russian companies. The local “political elite” thinks that conforming to Russia's demands in these areas will weaken Abkhazian influence in Abkhazia at the expense of wealthy Russian citizens (including ethnic Georgians) and companies. Moscow perhaps believes that Inal Ardzinba can accelerate the pace of Abkhazia’s integration with Russia and resolve the most painful issues.
Inal Ardzibna and Patriarch of all Russia Kirill
Inal Ardzinba's Ambitions - What Will Be the Next Move?
Inal Ardzinba is an ambitious man. Not many Abkhazians, especially at his age, have such connections with the Russian political elite and are acquainted with Vladimir Putin. Ardzinba had the opportunity to make a career in Russian politics, but it seems that he chose Abkhazia. His Russian “friends” may have helped him to make that choice. The position of “foreign minister” of a partially recognized republic is not the maximum of his capabilities, and he is thought to have more ambitious plans. “Parliamentary elections” in Abkhazia will be held in 2022. Last year, Ardzinba announced that he will form a political party and attract young cadres. The party does not exist as yet, but Ardzinba is expected to try to facilitate the appointment of his people to government structures, first of all to the “Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” These will later become members of his political team.
Undoubtedly, Inal Ardzinba's target is the seat of the “president” of Abkhazia, however, he is not of a suitable age yet. The post of “prime minister” would be an ideal career leap for him before reaching “presidential” age. Currently, the “Prime Minister” of Abkhazia is Alexander Ankvab, a veteran of Abkhaz politics who is not favored in Russia. In 2014, Ankvab was forced to resign from the “presidency” during a domestic political crisis mediated by Russia.
Inal Ardzinba’s Georgian Policy
The old guard of Abkhaz politics (including Aslan Bzhania and Sergey Shamba, the “Secretary of the Security Council”) considers it permissible to create a new platform for relations with Tbilisi (in addition to the Geneva Talks). However, representatives of the new generation, including Inal Ardzinba, have a radical stance and consider the recognition of Abkhazia's independence as a precondition for dialogue with Georgia. In an interview with the Apsnipress news agency in February, Ardzinba said that “the Georgian government is trying to pursue a more Jesuit strategy towards Abkhazia, in contrast to the violent methods of the early 1990s. Georgians are trying to show that their country has a qualified medical system, social standards and security, which means that life is better with them than without. Georgians are trying to tell us ‘our house is better, come back to us.’ We have our house, and we must carry out repair works in our house ourselves. Otherwise, the walls will collapse and the roof will fall down on top of us.” According to Ardzinba, the Biden administration in the United States will facilitate Georgia's membership in NATO, so, Georgia's chances in this regard have increased, he says.
Inal Ardzinba’s Priorities
Inal Ardzinba made statements about the main directions of Abkhazia's foreign policy in an interview with Abkhaz Television on November 19. He named the deepening of relations with Russia as one of the main priorities. “Despite the fact that more than 200 agreements have been signed between the parties, and the relations are based on a very solid foundation, there is still work to be done in this direction,” he said.
The development of cooperation with Russia’s regions and attracting investments from these regions were also named as a priority. Ardzinba will focus on expanding ties with countries which recognized the independence of Abkhazia, as well as working with countries which did not. He considers that a “correct information background” will need to be created for this.
According to Ardzinba, the international situation, including in the Black Sea region, is tense, a fact facilitated by the joint military exercises of the United States, Ukraine and Georgia. He named the recognition of the sovereignty of Abkhazia by Georgia and the development of normal relations, among these the signing of a bilateral agreement on non-use of force, as priorities. According to him, the Geneva International Discussions remain the only multilateral format in which Abkhazia is represented.
Factors Which Will Contribute to His Success
Inal Ardzinba is said to be the “son of a good family” His surname and his relationship with the first de facto president of Abkhazia give him some advantages for career success. He received a good education in Russia and has perhaps the best connections in Russian political circles and the executive branch among Abkhaz politicians. Russian ties will also help him resolve problems in bilateral relations and strengthen his political influence. Those who could “sort things out” in Moscow will also increase their political weight.
Factors Which Will Impede His Success
Everyone in Abkhazia talks about Inal Ardzinba's presidential ambitions; however, there are several impediments in this regard. The first is a formal issue relating to his age: He is only 31 years old, and according to the Abkhaz “constitution,” the president must be a minimum of 35. He will not be of “presidential” age even if the elections are held as scheduled in 2025. Therefore, he has to wait several more years, and many things can change in Abkhaz politics in the meantime.
Inal Ardzinba’s rival in the “presidential” marathon could be Adgur Ardzinba, a young politician who was the “minister of economy" in Khajimba's “government” and lost the 2020 “presidential elections” to his rival Aslan Bzhania. Adgur Ardzinba is an active member of the opposition and intends to fight for the “presidency” from the opposition front.
The main problem for Inal Ardzinba may be the lack of knowledge about the peculiarities of Abkhaz domestic politics and the attitudes of Abkhaz society. In Abkhazia, the political support of the population is often determined by kinship and geographical origin, and being the son of a good family, even if the surname is right, might not be enough. Russian support is also not a guarantor of success. In 2004, when Russia, and personally Vladimir Putin, backed Raul Khajimba's “presidency,” the majority of Abkhaz people backed his rival, Sergey Bagapsh. Later, they did not like Alexander Ankvab in Russia either, but Ankvab still managed to “become president.”
The appointment of Inal Ardzinba as a “foreign minister” is not just a personnel change to go unnoticed. His appearance and further involvement in Abkhaz politics will most likely lead to major changes which, in the near future, will diversify the balance of power in Abkhazia's domestic policy, as well as in its foreign policy, such as the pace and scale of integration with Russia.
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