The latest assassination attempt on the Abkhaz prime minister, Alexander Ankvab, has been seen in Tbilisi as the result of a power struggle between local Abkhaz elites.
Ankvab’s armored Land Cruiser was attacked with a grenade-launcher on the road between Gudauta and the capital, Sokhumi, early on July 9 – the third apparent attempt on his life in two years.
As all the attacks remain unresolved, speculation is rife as to who or what is behind them.
Both the Georgian and Russian press has written extensively on the July 9 attack. The Georgian press has tended to focus on, as it put it, “clannish infighting,” while the Russians have stressed “criminal retaliation.”
Ineligible to run for the presidency himself in 2004, Ankvab backed Bagapsh, the current Abkhaz president. He was believed to have been a major driving force behind Bagapsh’s success in the fraught presidential elections, which saw a fierce struggle with Moscow-backed candidate Raul Khajimba. The disputed elections and the subsequent political crisis in Abkhazia ended in late December 2004 and early January 2005, with a power-sharing agreement between Bagapsh and Khajimba, with the later becoming vice-president.
Ankvab was subsequently appointed prime minister. The first assassination attempt came less than two weeks after his appointment, on February 28, 2005. The second attack, again on his convoy, was carried out in April 2005. A roadside land mine, found last month, was also believed to have been aimed at Ankvab.
The Georgian daily, 24 Saati (24 Hours), wrote on July 10, that the series of attacks on Ankvab was a continuation of the power struggle between ‘the Bagapsh-Ankvab team’ and ‘the Ardzinba clan’ – a reference to business and political interests associated with relatives and supporters of ex-Abkhaz leader Vladislav Ardzinba. Khajimba, the vice-president, represents the interests of ‘the Ardzinba clan’ in the government, according to the newspaper.
According to 24 Saati, “Alexander Ankvab was the person who was behind the powerful drive to undermine the control of ‘the Ardzinba clan’ over the region’s economy. As a result, Ankvab has taken control over lucrative businesses, including tourism, tobacco, and the export of scrap metal and timber.”
Control of the breakaway region’s communications market was a particular focus for this ongoing feuding, according to the paper.
“Aquaphone, controlled by ‘the Ardzinba clan’ was until recently the only mobile phone operator in the region," 24 Saati reported. "The Bagapsh-Ankvab team has been instrumental in the launch of a new mobile operator, A-Mobile. Vice President Raul Khajimba tried in vain to thwart the launch.”
The newspaper went so far as to speculate that the attack on Ankvab may have been staged by the Bagapsh-Ankvab team itself, in order “to prepare public opinion for a decisive showdown” with ‘the Ardzinba clan.’
Another Georgian daily, Rezonansi (Resonance), wrote on July 10 that Ankvab was “a pro-Abkhazian” politician – a term used by some observers in Tbilisi to describe Abkhaz public figures who are against closer ties with Moscow, but also against integration into the Georgian state. The term is used to differentiate between ‘pro-Russians,’ who favor integration with Russia.
Rezonansi sees this cleavage in Abkhaz politics as significant in explaining the spate of attacks. “The Bagapsh-Ankvab team is a powerful force within Abkhaz politics and Raul Khajimba, an apparent pro-Russian figure and a former KGB officer, is of a different political mindset," the paper commented. "Georgian analysts do not rule out the possibility that Russian special services were behind the attacks on Ankvab.”
24 Saati also alluded to the dark hand of Russian secret services when it wrote of the recent “mysterious poisoning of Sergey Bagapsh.” He was hospitalized in April with, according to the official explanation, heart problems.
“His planned visit to Turkey was canceled at that time [because of health problems]," the paper said. "Planned meetings with the Abkhaz diaspora to start their gradual repatriation to Abkhazia were aborted. The repatriation process to Abkhazia, where ethnic Abkhaz are a minority, would have significantly changed the demographic and political balance to the detriment to Moscow’s and in particular the Russian special services’ interests.” Greater numbers of ethnic Abkhaz, many have suggested, would leave the secessionist authorities feeling less dependent on Russian patronage.
Most observers have ruled out Georgian involvement in the assassination attempt. It is, according to the Russian daily, Izvestia, “the most unreal explanation of what has happened.” The paper, in an article on July 10, figured that “mafia retaliation” was probably the motive.
That theme was also picked up on by the Russian business daily, Kommersant. It suggested that "Ankvab is a figure convenient neither for the Georgian, nor Russian sides,” but ultimately the rationale for the assassination attempt was money. In a July 10 article, it said “Ankvab is believed to be a major fighter against organized crime."
The paper noted the coincidence in the timing of the attack and the signing of an agreement between Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and Abkhaz leader Sergey Bagapsh. The agreement, which was signed in Moscow on July 9, on the same day as the attack, envisages Moscow municipality investing significant sums in Abkhazia. The paper suggests that with Ankvab out of the way, the money would have been siphoned off to corrupt interest groups.
“Mr. Ankvab is a person who will act as a guarantor that the money invested by the Moscow municipality will be spent as intended,” Kommersant said.
Meanwhile, the man at the center of the storm has refrained from making any allegations. “The investigation will reveal everything,” Ankvab told Rustavi 2 television on July 10.