Charlotte Hille

Abkhazia 1992-2012, Transition Towards a Stable Republic

After the cease fire agreement between the Abkhaz government, signed by president Ardzinba, Russian President Yeltsin and Georgian president Shevardnadze, in September 1992 and again in October 1992, the state building process of Abkhazia started off. Abkhazia already had its own president (chairman of the Supreme Soviet), parliament (Supreme Soviet), and constitution, which referred to its status as an ASSR in the Soviet Union. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union Georgia temporarily used the Constitution of 1921 which did not regulate the status of Abkhazia, while Abkhazia temporarily used the constitution of 1925. 

Now Abkhazia also had to transform itself into a republic based on Western European values such as human rights and the rule of law. A new constitution was drafted, which went into force on 24 November 1994. In article 1 the constitution provided for sovereignty. The constitution was based on the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Abkhazia kept its geographical organization in six provinces and seven districts (article 4), and the republic installed a presidential system, giving the president considerable power. Elections would be organized according to the European system of multiparty democracy. Voting went through proportional representation and coalition governments were possible. A Central Election Committee was established, which is responsible for the organization of elections in Abkhazia. In addition, the Supreme Court can judge in cases concerning conflict over the outcome of elections, conform article 73 (3) Constitution of Abkhazia.

Elections

Over the last twenty years political parties, advocacy groups and NGOs in Abkhazia have gone through considerable development. The government is faced with opposition groups in parliament. It is not predetermined that the candidate who has the support of the sitting president or the Russian Federation, will win the elections. This is illustrated by the 2004 presidential elections, where there was a very narrow victory for the candidate that was not supported by the sitting president and Russia. The presidential elections in fall 2011 showed that it remained unclear until after the elections how the population would vote. Eventually president Ankvab was elected in the first round with 54,9% of the votes, Shamba, who has been Minister of Foreign Affairs for 13 years, and seemed to do well during the run up to the elections, received 21% of the votes, and Raul Khajimba got 19% of the votes. The independent “League for Fair Elections” has been organised, which comprises of Abkhazian election monitors and their observations have been published in reports. In addition, foreign election monitors have been invited to the presidential and parliamentary elections. An estimated 80 international election monitors from 30 different nations and from several NGOs and INGOs were present.

In the run-up to the elections all candidates received television airtime to campaign. This time was for instance used to broadcast discussions with the audience or political commercials.

NGOs are capable to lobby parliamentarians, as is the case with the gender NGOs, who have supported a specific parliamentarian to be elected. He now advocates gender issues in parliament. Women are well represented in civil society, and in the latest parliamentary elections, several women have been elected in parliament, such as Irina Agrba, Amra Agrba and Rita Lolua.

According to  election monitors which monitored the presidential elections in September 2011 and the parliamentary elections in Spring 2012, the preparation of the elections, giving all candidates the possibility to run their campaigns,  for example by offering them airtime on radio and television, went according to international standards. The elections themselves were also regarded as transparent and fair. This is good news, especially since not all Abkhazia’s neighbors can show a similar record concerning their elections.

Parliamentary System

A question which may come to mind is whether in Abkhazia, as part of a further development of its institutions, there would  be room to change from a presidential to a parliamentary system. This will bring democracy closer to the citizens. Most Western European states have a parliamentarian system and it is a guarantee that power is shared among all those elected by the citizens. A parliamentary system is also considered as a stronger guarantee that there will be checks and balances, and a division of powers (trias politica).

It is understandable that Abkhazia opted for a presidential system in 1994. All its neighbours adopted a presidential system in their constitutions as well (Georgia’s constitution was adopted in 1995, as well as Armenia’s constitution and the constitution of Azerbaijan). When a territory is unstable, a strong executive will guarantee that the ruling of the republic will not be paralyzed by fighting political parties in parliament. A strong president will be able to keep the country together. Furthermore, when fighting would break out, in many states the president will be the commander of the army. This will create extra responsibilities and power in the executive, in which case a presidential system will assure enough room for action, if needed. The president does not have to reckon with prior approval by a parliament (article 47 (14) Constitution gives parliament the power to decide on matters of war and peace). In a state which still has to acquaint itself with a multi-party system, the president may fill a void which political parties may leave, for example because the system is more based on consensus than on a ruling coalition and an opposition.

Georgia has changed its constitution in 2010 by changing from a presidential to a parliamentary system. This would bring more democracy; give more political room to the prime minister and parliament; and create more checks and balances. There are however voices which worry that president Saakashvili of Georgia will use the parliamentary system to have him elected prime minister after January 2013, when his second term as president expires. It is said that, while serving as a prime minister he would possibly wait until he can run for president again in 2018, using the same system as neighbouring president Putin.  In Armenia  the plan to change the political system from presidential to parliamentary has been issued as well. According to the Dashnak party, who has raised the plan,  it is a way to diversify Armenia’s very centralized state apparatus.

Apart from Abkhazia's internal political development, there has also been a development in its foreign policy.

Abkhazias Foreign Policy

The present foreign policy of Abkhazia can be characterized as ‘interested in closer relations with Western Europe, while at the same time having close relations with the Russian Federation’. Under the authority of Minister of Foreign Affairs  Chirikba, who took office in October 2011, delegations from the EU, the OSCE and specialized agencies of the UN have been welcomed in Abkhazia to discuss relations. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was recently reformed to include regional desks and desks covering topics such as consular affairs, a legal department and an information department. Another initiative by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to create a website in four languages which will inform the reader about the background of the conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia, as well as give information on the official publications concerning the negotiations between Georgia and Abkhazia. In June 2012 the Czech ambassador to Georgia visited the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Abkhazia in a familiarization visit. The visit reflects an increased interest in the republic by Eastern European states and is a step forward to development of relations. Furthermore, in the past years Abkhazia’s relations with Turkey have increased, both politically, with the visit of high officials to Abkhazia, and economically. Turkish vessels, primarily fishing vessels, are frequently anchored in the harbor of Sukhum.

Human Rights

Human rights have been enshrined in chapter 2 of the Abkhaz constitution. The formulation follows the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as formulated by the UN and adopted in 1948. This Declaration has been an inspiration to many constitutions worldwide. The main issues Abkhazia has concerning respect for human rights are corruption and a partially state-controlled media. The Abkhaz parliament has installed a  committee on human rights, headed by Batal Kobakhia. Furthermore, Abkhazia has deployed a Human Rights Commissioner, working under the aegis of the president, and the UN has instituted a Human Rights Office in Abkhazia.

Many developments have taken place in the past twenty years, and Abkhazia is showing that it complies with the criteria of a state and a democracy. Given the difficulties of boycot and conflict in the last two decades, this is an accomplishment worth celebrating.

Charlotte Hille*
Assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, University of Amsterdam. Dr Hille is specialised in State building, conflict resolution and international mediation. She is the author of State Building and Conflict Resolution in the Caucasus, Brill, 2010. NETHERLANDS

*I would like to thank Margriet Goos MA for valuable information concerning the 2011 and 2012 elections.

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