Sergei Bagapsh, leader of the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, has died in Moscow. He was 62.
Bagapsh, who had led Abkhazia as its de facto president since 2005, died on May 29, one week after undergoing lung surgery.
Bagapsh won a second term in 2009, a year after the Black Sea region was recognized by Russia as an independent state following Moscow’s brief war with Tbilisi.
An agronomist by training, Bagapsh began his political career in the Komsomol (Union of Communist Youth) and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
He was named first deputy chairman of the unrecognized republic’s government in 1993, after a war that left thousands dead and ended with the Georgian government’s loss of control over the breakaway region and the expulsion of its majority Georgian population.
He served as prime minister from 1997 to 1999 under then-de facto President Vladislav Ardzinba.
Bagapsh (left) and rival Raul Khajimba were able to compromise.
Bagapsh was elected president in January 2005 after an acrimonious standoff with then-Prime Minister Raul Khajimba, the Russian-backed former republican KGB head who placed second in the first round of voting.
In a deal brokered by senior Russian politicians, Bagapsh and Khajimba ran as a tandem in the repeat vote.
Taras Shamba, president of the International Abkhaz-Abazin Organization, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service that it was Bagapsh who made the first move toward reconciliation with Khajimba, and thus put an end to a confrontation “that could have led to civil war.”
Dalila Pilia, a lecturer at the Abkhaz State University in Sukhumi, similarly highlighted what she said were Bagapsh’s consistent efforts to avoid political confrontation.
“Even his opponents stressed that in a political struggle he was always for consensus, in favor of the sides trying to find a common language,” she told RFE/RL.
…But No Compromise With Tbilisi
As national leader, Bagapsh sought to balance pragmatism and realism with the defense of Abkhazia’s proclaimed independence from Georgia — the one issue on which he ruled out any compromise.
It was the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war that served as the catalyst for Moscow’s recognition of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. Only Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and the South Pacific island of Nauru recognize the two regions as independent.
Vazha Lortkipanidze, who in the 1990s served under then-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze as state minister, knew Bagapsh well in the 1970s when they were both Komsomol activists.
Lortkipanidze described Bagapsh as “a new type of Georgian leader.” Lortkipanidze recalled earlier proposals Bagapsh made, such as “the idea of a phased approach to resolving the conflict. He always advocated beginning with economic issues.”
Too Close To Russia?
Paradoxically, the formal recognition of Abkhazia by Russia in August 2008 narrowed Bagapsh’s freedom of maneuver without enhancing his status as national leader.
They said Bagapsh had made unnecessary and unacceptable concessions to Russia over such issues as the Russian military presence in Abkhazia and economic cooperation. And they were angered by his attempts to facilitate the acquisition by the republic’s Georgian minority of Abkhaz citizenship.
Journalists and representatives of civil society also criticized him for restrictions on the media and for failing to crack down on official corruption or to expedite meaningful reforms.
Still, Bagapsh was reelected for a second term in December 2009 with 60 percent of the vote, defeating four rivals. Khajimba, the erstwhile Soviet apparatchik who has reinvented himself as an Abkhaz nationalist, finished second with 15 percent.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on May 29 paid tribute to Bagapsh as “a wise politician, a decisive and strong-willed person and a true patriot of Abkhazia.”
Medvedev and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have personally paid their last respects to Bagapsh at a lying-in-state ceremony in Moscow. Bagapsh’s body will be flown to Abkhazia where he will be buried on June 2 in his native village.
De facto Vice President Aleksandr Ankvab will serve as acting president until an early election due within the next three months.
Potential candidates include Ankvab, Khajimba, current Prime Minister Sergei Shamba, and businessman Beslan Butba, who finished a distant fourth in the 2009 election.
Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze, in Tbilisi’s first comment on Bagapsh’s death, said today that the election would not be legitimate and that therefore the political situation in the region would not change.
written by Liz Fuller, with contributions from RFE/RL’s Russian and Echo of the Caucasus services