Op-Ed: Crisis in Abkhazia unavoidable. How the authorities deal with it is vital
Abkhaz President Aslan Bzhania was elected on April 23, 2020. For many years, Bzhania was the leader of the opposition and consistently criticized the authorities. However, he has not yet launched a single reform, and it’s unclear what points the new administration has chosen to focus on.
On January 9, 2020, a group of activists and opposition members stormed the presidential palace in Abkhazia and demanded the resignation of President Raul Khadjimba, who had been re-elected just a few months earlier, on September 8, 2019. On the same day, the Supreme Court declared the results of those elections invalid, and on January 12, Khajimba announced his resignation and repeat elections were scheduled.
Aslan Bzhaniya assumed the post about a month and a half ago, so clearly not enough time has passed to see any visible results from the government.
However, this is more than enough time for the government to restate the program of full-scale reforms promised during the election period and to formulate the action plan for implementing them.
But so far, not even a vague outline of how the administration plans to carry out these great changes has been presented.
It is as if all the energy they had during the campaign has quietly dissolved in the face of the notorious personnel issue.
So far, most ministerial positions are still open.
And there are too many familiar faces among those who have been appointed.
Some of them are ministers from the previous administration of Raul Khadjimb, their terms of duty somehow quite unexpectedly prolonged under the rule of his greatest opponent, Aslan Bzhaniya.
Others are politicians from an even more distant past – the presidency of Alexander Ankvab, who is now the prime minister.
There are only two new people in the government who could be considered unconditional members of Bzhania’s team: Minister of the Interior Dmitry Dbar and Minister of Tourism Teymuraz Khishba. And that’s it.
This limited team leads to the inevitable question: Aslan Bzhania even have a team of reformers, as he claimed so loudly and frequently during the election period?
And on top of the all-encompassing crisis into which Abkhazia has been gradually slipping for at least the last ten years, the pandemic struck. And all this, it seems, drove the new government into a systemic stupor.
Making any sudden movements by implementing unpopular quarantine measures in the absence of any financial “pillow” is clearly uncomfortable for them.
And there is a tendency to leave everything as it is, and then act on the situation.
At the very least, the structure of the current government is just as bulky as its previous counterparts. Maintaining this bureaucratic apparatus and paying out pensions takes the entire state budget with none left to spare.
But the desire to leave everything as it is will only aggravate the crisis and solve nothing. And this puts the newly-minted government in an extremely fragile position.
The former opposition, led by Aslan Bzhaniya, is now in power. A new opposition has not yet formed.
But after all, anyone and for any reason can lead to the discontented masses in a march to the presidential palace.
Moreover, a reason to protest is already bubbling just under the surface: due to quarantine, a sharp deterioration in the standard of living throughout the country was unavoidable.
Quarantine made the poor poorer
The summer tourist season, which usually feeds a large part of the population, will either be extremely hobbled, or may not even take place at all in 2020.
But even if Abkhazia sees some tourists throughout the season, the inevitable new coronavirus cases may end up putting an unbearable burden on the local healthcare system. There is no doubt that Russian tourists will bring their share of coronavirus patients, which the republic has so far warded off by closing the borders.
It is naive to think that Russia, which is in a crisis itself, will be able to help
The idea that “Russia will help us” is also very naive as an anti-crisis measure for several reasons: the Kremlin is facing its own economic crisis and is clearly not up to the task of helping Abkhazia, as it must first deal with its own federal subjects.
Therefore, it’s best for Abkhazia not to expect a lot of money to come its way. But even if Abkhazia did receive the necessary financial assistance, with the existing systems of funding distribution that have been in effect for years, only officials and business close to the authorities will benefit.
Given the current trend, a new crisis is inevitable.
But unlike the previous ones, its consequences will be more destructive than an early change of power, to which the political system has long been accustomed.
If the president is overthrown again, the whole system of government will collapse with him, since in its current form, social benefits are essentially nonexistent.
Reforms are badly needed – and very dangerous
Abkhazia needs a change as much as it needs air.
But let’s imagine that after a brief warm up period, Aslan Bzhaniya really will carry out full-scale reforms, sharply reducing the state apparatus, waging a tough war against corruption and street crime, creating a competitive business environment within the country, etc.
Even in this case, the crisis will not pass. Changes to the status quo that are too abrupt will automatically lead to great tension in society, with all the ramifications that entails.
Nevertheless, in any case, handling the crisis with a reformist solution is better than the “stagnant” option.
For in the first case, the result of the crisis will be the development of a fully-formed system of government that meets modern realities. And this will undoubtedly have a positive effect on everything, from economics and security to the social sphere and the education system.
And the option of leaving everything as it is has no good outcomes. In the best case scenario, it will simply be the next step in the ongoing series of crises.
And at worst, the new crisis will put an end to Abkhaz statehood.
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