Staunton, May 28 – In what the Kremlin is likely to see as the most disturbing blowback of its backing of the Donetsk separatists in Ukraine, a group of veterans of the Georgian-Abkhaz war have stormed a government building in Sukhumi and demanded the resignation of that breakaway republic’s president, an indication of how easily “the Donetsk disease” can spread.
The Abkhaz opposition has been demanding a crackdown on corruption and the departure of the Abkhazian president for several months without success. On 6 May, opposition leaders said they would organize “an all-people assembly” if Aleksandr Ankvab did not agree. He didn’t and yesterday, that assembly of several thousand people met.
But it didn’t stay entirely peaceful. Some activists agreed to meet with Ankvab but others attempted to forcibly break into the government building, breaking windows and doors in the process. Ankvab for his part fled, and the crisis continues even though the president has agreed to disband the council of ministers, fire the procurator and dismiss three district heads.
Encouraged by Ankvab’s retreat, the demonstrators who grew in number to “about 5,000” according to news reports demanded the convention of an extraordinary session of the republic parliament. One opposition leader announced that the Coordinating Council of Opposition Parties would take over “the temporary leadership of the republic and form all necessary structures.”
Raul Khadhimba, the opposition leader, called on women and children to go home but on the men to remain “alongside the building of the administration of the president.” Spokesmen for the Ankvab regime insisted that they remain in control of the republic and that the president has not fled.
Ankvab declared that he “hadn’t gone anywhere,” that he “remains in Abhazia,” and that he is “discussing with members of the Security Council variants of the development of events.” He said that his goal and there is “one – not to allow the development of a scenario” that would harm Abkhazia.
He sought to place the blame for the demonstration on outsiders, claiming that “a large group of people, including those armed, ‘came to Abkhaz television and in fact seized it.’” Security forces could have responded but didn’t because “we still have a chance to return the situation to a legal one.”
The Abkhaz defense minister said his forces “do not intend to interfere in the internal situation in the republic” and asserted that “now negotiations with the opposition are continuing.” Former South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoyta offered to serve as an intermediary if the two sides wanted him to.
This is a rapidly evolving situation and how it will turn out is far from clear. But one thing is certain: the willingness of people to use armed force against duly constituted authorities, a genie that Vladimir Putin let out of the bottle by his policies in Ukraine, has now spread to Abkhazia and could easily spread elsewhere as well.
Whether or not that happens, of course, depends on many things, including in the first instance the actions of the Russian siloviki [armed forces]. But the fear that it could happen has beyond any doubt now spread to Moscow. And that fear in turn is likely to inform Putin’s next steps as well as those who oppose his aggressive and authoritarian policies.