Standards of Bagapsh

By Sergey Markedonov


The second President of Abkhazia Sergei Bagapsh died on Tuesday, May 29th, 2011 in Moscow. This politician was not simply the second Head of the Republic. No matter how people in and out of Abkhazia treat him, the name of Sergei Bagapsh will be connected by historians with the recognition of state independence of the entity, which survived 14-month armed conflict, long-standing regime of sanctions and existence with “hung up” status. Today it’s hard to say, how many states and how fast would acknowledge the realities occurred after the August war of 2008. Maybe for a long time there will be no more than 10 states considering Abkhazia as independent state from Georgia. Anyway, the process of international legitimization of unrecognized republic was started exactly by Sergei Bagapsh. And the acknowledgement of Abkhazia by Pacific Ocean state Vanuatu appeared to be the postmortem respect to the late Abkhaz Leader two days after his death on May 31st 2011.


However the historic appointment of Sergei Bagapsh is not limited to only international political-legal precedents. We can recollect the context, in which this person occupied political Olympus. The withdrawal of Abkhazia from Georgia control in September-October 1993 was not the end but the beginning of all the problems. Destroyed infrastructure, breakage of old economic contacts (with the withdrawal of Georgian people the “labor division” collapsed which had been earlier developed through years), demographic losses (small Abkhaz people of 93 thousand of population according to various estimations lost 2-3 thousand people during the war of 1992-1993), absence of clear legal status and investments, uncontrolled proliferation of weapon and the claims of “armed people” for political leadership as well as the readiness of Georgian state to take a revanche for defeat. Even each individual trouble from the number described above seemed to be beyond their strength. And all together they produced the feeling of disaster. However, the leaders of Abkhazia managed to prevent the formation of “Field Commanders Federation” and with much pains started rehabilitating destroyed economy (the process which is not yet finished). During the first stages the power in the Republic was concentrated completely in the arms of the charismatic President of Abkhazia Vladislav Ardzinba, acting in the role of military-filed manager.

But already by the end of 90-s it became evident that the “camouflage” style of management run dry. Ordinary people of Abkhazia hesitated more often: “What kind of independence do we need?” and is dependence able to serve as justification of personal power, nepotism and clanism? Sergei Bagapsh, who had been behind the shadow of Vladislav Ardzinba for a long time, came out to the leadership, when his predecessor (severely ill by that time) was leaving his post, promoting Raul Khadzhimbu as his successor. This decision of the President was supported by Moscow, and in the result they launched powerful propaganda for the “right choice”. Then the central element of the pre-electoral program of Sergei Bagapsh was the opposition to authoritarianism, which according to him “had existed in the Republic for 11 years”. Was Sergei Bagapsh a devoted democrat?

It's assumed that the reply on this question shall be rather negative. The second President of Abkhazia went though a good Komsomol-Patry school (Komsomol Central Committee in Georgia, Regional Committee of Komsomol in Abkhazia and the position of the first Secretary of Regional Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union). However, being a pragmatic and practician he realized that a monocentric power model won’t work in a small republic with strong clan peculiarities and ethnic diversity. Here they should agree and reach compromises. And he revealed these qualities of a mediator and moderator fully in 2004-2005.

Having won Presidential elections, he faced inability of his opponents and the Kremlin standing behind them, to delegate the authority to the one, who wasn’t named a “successor”. That time many people in his stuff pushed Bagapsh to rigid and radical actions. However, he chose another way – negotiations and establishment of the “tandem” with the participation of the former main opponent as a Vice-President. Indeed, afterwards the “tandem” collapsed and the Vice-President Khadzhimba left his post in favor of the carrier of oppositionist and defender of “national values” versus too “pro-Russian Begapsh”. But in the end of 2004 - beginning 2005 this scheme allowed to ease the situation. And as a result to establish an important for Abkhazia precedent of peaceful transition of the authority from one leader to the other. Except for that Bagapsh managed to find a common ground with Moscow.

It was a unique case in post-soviet history, when a candidate, which hadn’t been initially supported by the Kremlin, was recognized by Russian authorities as “friend”. And not only a “friend” but a strategic partner. In 2009 almost no one in Moscow hesitated whom to support and wish luck during Presidential campaign.

Much water has flown under the bridges since then. But Bagapsh was devoted to his credo of 2004-2005. He preserved political opposition. Moreover, his main rival Raul Khadzhimba in 2009 had a possibility to engage the swords in course of pre-electoral battle with Bagapsh and to take the second place. Bagapsh severely and sometimes with dissatisfaction reacted on challenges of Mass Media against him and his course. Although the kind of pained reaction was mostly peculiar not to Sergei Vasiljevich himself but to some of his too sensitive subordinates. However, the situation with freedom of speech in Abkhazia can be the subject of jealousy for many post-soviet states, which have the UNO “registration”. Including also, first of all Russia.

Bagapsh solved the issue with security guarantees for the Republic. And in 2006 official Tbilisi renamed the Kodori Valley into Upper Abkhazia and expanded its military presence there in order to “defrost” the conflict and return the Republic into its control sphere.

Acknowledgement of Abkhazia removed “Georgian issue” from the first position of the Republican agenda to the backstage ones. However this made the “factor of Russia” the main issue. It includes the matter of economic penetration of Russian business giants, and political control, and problem of budget funds, the access to which has become an important plot of domestic life of Abkhazia. On the one hand, people observe the military presence of the Russian Federation, that doesn’t allow Tbilisi even to think about revanche, as well as reconstructed Sukhumi after breakdown. But from the other hand, they see back-alley players, “sharing” Russian financial aid together with edging from first positions the veterans of war of 1992-1993 and various non-transparent operations with property. In front of their eyes happen “cottage stories” and “flows” regarding the take-over of the part of Abkhaz territory in favor of the Russian Federation.

Having turned over one chapter of Abkhaz history, Bagapsh opened another one. In this chapter the interrelations with Russia shall be more significant subject. And it’s not a fact that this charter will be with happy end. Bagapsh died without leaving the successor. Thus, the Republic shall face a complicated struggle to determine the next President. Anyway, the new Head of Abkhazia shall coordinate their actions with those high standards, which were developed its second President.
Sergei Markedonov – visiting fellow researcher of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the USA, Washington
Translated by EuroDialogueXXI from