Criminal investigations follow protest violence in Abkhazia

Abkhazian prosecutors on Tuesday opened a criminal investigation into a protest that escalated into violence, injuring several journalists.

On Wednesday, the attorney general’s office said it was investigating on the basis of the organization and participation in mass riots and the use of violence against a government official, accompanied by destruction of property.

Tuesday’s demonstration in the center of the Abkhaz capital, Sukhum (Sukhumi), was organized by opposition leaders and other groups.

At the end of the demonstration, protest leaders announced a list of demands, including the opening of proceedings to impeach President Aslan Bzhaniya, constitutional reforms giving parliament the power to appoint the government and the extension of a year of the current parliament.

Legislative elections are currently set for March 12.

The demonstration on December 21. Photo: OC Media.
The demonstration on December 21. Photo: OC Media.

Anger has been brewing for the past few months over the course of electricity shortages, the prospect of privatizations and a comment by President Aslan Bzhaniya that Abkhazia should “share sovereignty” with Russia.

Violence erupted after President Bzhaniya refused calls from protest leaders to address protesters, citing a ban on public events due to the pandemic. Bzhaniya said he would answer their questions in another format once the situation calmed down.

Following his refusal, demonstrators marched to the neighboring parliament, placed under high police protection and surrounded by buses. Protesters attempted to climb and even run over the buses, with security forces retaliating with smoke bombs and stun grenades.

The demonstrators then began to attack journalists. An Abkhaz state television cameraman and driver and a Russian state agency cameraman Sputnik have been hurt.

Following the violence, President Bzhaniya met with several opposition leaders – Adgur Ardzinba, the leader of the United Opposition, Timur Gulia, the president of Aruaa, a veterans organization, and Akhra Bzhaniya, who heads the public organization Akhatsa. They were accompanied by the Vice-President of Parliament. Mikhail Sangulia.

The meeting was also attended by Prime Minister Alexander Ankvab and Vice President Badra Gunba, as well as the Head of the Presidential Administration, Alkhas Kvitsiniya.

After the meeting, the protest leaders released a list of demands:

  • The initiation of legal proceedings to remove the president;
  • A freeze on all energy, property and foreign policy initiatives that the process concludes;
  • Amendments to the constitution to move to a mixed system of electing deputies, with a proportional element;
  • Abolish the post of Prime Minister;
  • A condition for the government to be approved by parliament;
  • Extension of the current parliament by one year, due to the pandemic.

Bjanyia under pressure

One day before the demonstration, Abkhaz President Aslan Bzhaniya assured the public that the government was open to “constructive dialogue”, admitting that “many issues remain unresolved”.

Bjanyia nevertheless warned that the problems facing Abkhazia “cannot be overcome in a weak economy, in an unstable state shaken with dangerous frequency by political crises”.

He urged people to refrain from participating in “another irresponsible street protest” which he said threatened to bring “the fragile state of Abkhazia” to destruction.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Amtsakhara, the National Front of Abkhazia, and Aytayra celebrations that day.

The demonstration on December 21. Photo: OC Media.
The demonstration on December 21. Always video.

Minister of the Interior of Abkhazia Valter butba and the head of the state security service, Robert kiut, also called on the public on December 20 not to participate in “illegal” gatherings and warned that organizers would be responsible for all “possible consequences”.

On December 15, the president also called on the Abkhazians to distance themselves from the street protest, citing an earlier call by opposition leader Kan Kvarchiya for people to “arm themselves”.

The authorities have come under increased pressure since the end of September, following a clash between the police and MPs Almaskhan Ardzinba and Gari Kokaya.

On December 17, the deputies voted against a request from Attorney General Adgur Agrba for Ardzinba and Kokaya to be deprived of their immunity. The prosecutor intended to prosecute Kokaya for hooliganism with the use of firearms and insulting a government official, and Ardzinba for hooliganism and illegal possession of weapons.

Agrba called lawmakers’ decision “legal but unfair”.

Bjanya also came under heavy criticism after making a statement on November 13 in favor of allowing the Russians to buy. real estate in Abkhazia and to offer a “shared sovereignty” of the lands on which the Russian military bases are located.

The main geographic terms used in this article are those of the author. For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as “de facto”, “unrecognized” or “partially recognized” when discussing institutions or political positions in Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Ossetia. South. This does not imply a position on their status.

Mark M. Gagnon