Abkhaz leader, Alexander Ankvab, had to leave presidential administration after demonstrators, demanding his resignation, broke into the premises hours after large protest rally gathered in Sokhumi center on May 27.
Ankvab, whose first five-year presidential term expires in 2016, condemned takeover of government building by the opposition as “an attempt to seize power by force.”
According to reports from Sokhumi there were at least two attempts by protesters to break into the presidential administration; initially several dozen of protesters, who smashed some windows of the premises, were pushed back by Ankvab’s supporters and although there were scuffles no major clashes were reported.
Russia’s Interfax news agency reported shortly before the midnight on Tuesday that opposition activists “took control” over presidential administration “without meeting any resistance” from Ankvab’s supporters at 11pm local time on Tuesday.
Russian and Abkhaz news agencies reported quoting one of the opposition leaders, MP Raul Khajimba, telling supporters that the opposition is “temporarily taking over the reins” of power; he also called on protesters not to disperse. But Ankvab’s allies said that the government “remains in control of the country.”
Just before 3am on Wednesday Apsnipress official news agency carried extracts from Ankvab’s interview with a local television station in which the Abkhaz leader says that he remains in Abkhazia and discusses “various scenarios” with his security council members. His location was not reported.
Ankvab said that “a large number of people, armed men among them” have also “seized” the state TV station.
Ankvab, who earlier this month spent a day in hospital because of heart problems, said that protesters did not face any resistance from the security guard in order to avoid bloodshed.
“From the legal point of view this is of course an attempt to seize power by force,” Ankvab was quoted by Apsnipress. “But we still have a chance to bring situation back into legal framework.”
He said that there were attempts by the opposition to reach out to leadership of law enforcement agencies to find out where they stand in this standoff.
“They are devoted to the state and are taking all the measures to stabilize situation,” Ankvab said.
In a joint statement carried on the Apsnipress news agency after midnight on May 28, leadership of law enforcement and security agencies said: “We support legally elected President of the country.”
The statement, signed by breakaway region’s defense minister Mirab Kishmaria, interior minister Otar Khetsia, chief of state security service Aslan Bzhania and head of special purpose forces Raul Lolua, says that further “escalation may lead to catastrophic consequences.”
“Power-wielding structures are beyond politics, but unconstitutional methods of struggle, which lead the country towards destabilization, are strongly unacceptable for us,” reads the statement. “We strongly urge all the forces for lawful actions solely within the framework of constitution.”
Several thousand people started to gather in the center of Sokhumi, few hundred meters from presidential office, on Tuesday afternoon for a pre-announced protest rally.
Although reports about number of protesters varied from 5,000 to 10,000, even the conservative estimate of the turnout is large for Abkhaz standards.
The rally, called “a nationwide assembly”, was organized by Coordinating Council, an umbrella group uniting four opposition political parties and seven public movements.
Coordinating Council was set up last year and originally it was established by opposition groups for the purpose of challenging Ankvab on “passportization” process in eastern parts of Abkhazia, including the Gali district, which is predominantly populated by ethnic Georgians. Ankvab’s approach, also tried by his late predecessor and ally Sergey Bagapsh, which aimed at facilitating engagement of ethnic Georgians of Gali with rest of the breakaway region including through distributing Abkhaz passports, was slammed by opposition groups as threat to “Abkhaz sovereignty.”
Although this issue still remains in focus of Coordinating Council, its agenda has evolved since then to include challenging Ankvab on much broader issues ranging from social and economic problems to lack of democratic reforms.
In April, 2014 the Coordinating Council laid out number of demands to, as it put it, overcome “systemic crisis” in Abkhazia.
The list of those demands included: sacking of PM Leonid Lakerbaia and the entire cabinet, as well as of prosecutor general; appointing new PM, selected by the Coordinating Council; newly appointed PM, according to proposal, should select cabinet members, who will then be confirmed by the president; drafting of constitutional amendments to cut presidential powers at the expense of increasing Parliament’s and PM’s authorities. Coordinating Council also demanded dismissal of heads of Gali, Tkvarcheli and Ochamchire districts. The opposition warned at the time that it would convene “a nationwide assembly” and demand Ankvab’s resignation if these demands were not met. Ankvab rejected it and said “ultimatum is unacceptable and unproductive.”
One of the key figures within the Coordinating Council is MP Raul Khajimba, leader of the opposition party Forum of the National Unity of Abkhazia.
Khajimba, who graduated KGB's academy in Minsk in mid-1980s, was the breakaway region’s vice-president in 2005-2009. He took that post as a result of a power-sharing agreement with then Abkhaz leader Sergey Bagapsh following a fiercely disputed presidential election in 2004.
In the 2011 election in which Ankvab won the presidency with up to 55% of votes, Khajimba was third in the race with less than 20% of votes.
In 2004 presidential election Khajimba’s presidential bid was publicly backed by Moscow; ahead of 2011 presidential election Khajimba tried to position himself as a critic of Abkhazia's overreliance on Moscow, criticizing authorities for ineffective use of the Russian aid funds.
This issue still remains one of the reasons of opposition’s criticism of the authorities. Along with accusing Ankvab of “authoritarian” rule, opponents are also criticizing him for directing Russian aid money to such projects, which the opposition says, does not provide for sustainable economic growth.
Addressing the protest rally on May 27, Vitaly Gabnia, chairman of union of the Abkhaz war veterans, Aruaa, said: “Is it an independent states, when 70% of its budget consists of aid money?”
“Our president… has turned into the tsar. System of unilateral decision-making brought our country into bankruptcy,” he said.
In parallel to the protest rally, some opposition leaders, among them Khajimba, were holding talks with Ankvab in his office in the presidential premises.
On Tuesday evening news agencies reported that Ankvab had agreed to meet part of opposition’s demands, including sacking of the government. These reports were originating from opposition figures, present at the meeting. Ankvab’s allies, however, denied it.
In remarks reported by Apsnipress, Ankvab said that although opposition was at some point during the talks insisting on his resignation, negotiations then focused on issues related to change of government and resignation of prosecutor general and heads of Gali and Tkvarcheli districts. He said that the opposition walked out of talks, returned back to their supporters in the street, which, he said, was followed by “seizure” of the presidential administration.
At a news conference on the eve of the rally, head of Aruaa, Vitaly Gabnia, was ruling out “forceful seizure” of governmental buildings. “Anyone who will try to do that will endanger our statehood and everyone will lose,” Gabnia said.
An extraordinary session of the parliament has been convened for 11am local time on Wednesday, according to parliament speaker Valery Bganba.