Nov 19, 2004

Abkhaz Crisis deepens as Police eeportedly desert the Government

The political crisis over the disputed presidential poll in Georgia's separatist Republic of Abkhazia intensified yesterday, with all regional police chiefs saying they can no longer obey government orders
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The statement that was distributed yesterday in Abkhazia's capital, Sukhum, is signed by all of the province's Interior Ministry department heads and regional police chiefs. It is addressed to President Vladislav Ardzinba, Vice President Valerii Arshba, and parliament speaker Nugzar Ashuba.

Claiming they speak on behalf of the entire 2,500-strong Abkhaz police force, the signatories say they can no longer tolerate what they call "chaos and disorder" in the Black Sea province. They also accuse Prime Minister Nodar Khashba and some of his cabinet ministers of "misinforming the media and the Russian political leadership" about the situation in Abkhazia, an attitude they fear "may lead to further destabilization and confrontation."

In conclusion, the letter's authors state that they can no longer "obey such a government."

Khashba described the statement as unlawful.

"By law, the Interior Ministry organs have simply no right to meddle with such matters," Khashba said. "If, as individuals, [these officers] have grievances toward me, they can always come to me. But they would have to leave their uniforms and appear before me in plain clothes."

A former Russian Emergencies Situations Ministry official, Khashba was appointed Abkhazia's prime minister in the wake of last month's disputed presidential election, which saw opposition candidate Sergei Bagapsh narrowly defeat former Prime Minister Raul Khajimba.

Despite a Central Election Commission ruling pronouncing Bagapsh the winner of the 3 October poll, the outgoing administration insisted the vote was fraudulent and demanded that a new ballot be held.

The crisis took a violent twist on 12 November, when opposition supporters briefly took control of the administrative building that houses the government and the presidential administration. Gunshots were fired. Several people were injured, and an elderly woman subsequently died of her wounds in hospital.

The following day, media reports said gunmen had fired upon the Sukhum police headquarters, where witnesses were being interrogated over the unrest.

The government blamed the opposition for the latter incident. But Bagapsh's supporters described the attack as a provocation organized by the government.

In the statement distributed yesterday, the regional police chiefs claimed that members of the presidential guard, as well as customs and security officers, were responsible for the attack. They demanded that these and other paramilitary units be disbanded, lest they carry out further actions "aimed at crushing democracy" in Abkhazia.

Vice President Valeri Arshba yesterday apparently backed the regional police chiefs' claims.

"All department chiefs in the Interior Ministry's central apparatus, all district police chiefs and their deputies -- in all some 2,000 people -- have [subscribed to] this statement," Arshba said. "I have the [evidence] on my desk here. They say they cannot work with this government because of its unconstitutional policy."

Hours later, Arshba was removed from office by presidential decree.

Presidential spokesman Roin Agrba told Russia's Regnum news agency that Arshba had been dismissed for "overtly supporting the attempted coup" perpetrated by Bagapsh's supporters.

By 15 November, opposition activists had voluntarily vacated the administrative building seized over the weekend. The Abkhaz leadership and the Russian Foreign Ministry insist that Bagapsh and his supporters attempted to seize power by force.

Bagapsh denies the accusation, which parliament yesterday also described as unfounded. He has pledged to continue talks with his opponents to find a way out of the crisis.

Bagapsh, who has the backing of the armed forces and the influential veterans of the 1992-93 war with Georgia, said he is ready to offer Khajimba a ministerial portfolio in his future cabinet.

Khajimba has turned down the offer, however, proposing instead that both of them renounce claims to the presidency in the event of a nationwide re-vote.

Khajimba yesterday denied that the entire police force has deserted the government but admitted it is split along political lines.

"There are [police] officers who continue to fulfill their duties regardless of whom they would like to see [as president]," Khajimba said. "This is normal. But others obviously support one side and are less concerned with enforcing public order."

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Khashba said that Abkhazia's Council of Elders will meet on 20 November to assess the crisis and make its conclusions public in an address to the nation. Yesterday, this influential consultative body summoned both presidential contenders in a bid to convince them to peacefully settle their dispute.

Bagapsh's subsequent comments, however, leave little hope a compromise can be achieved in the coming days. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, he said he had once again rejected a council proposal that a new election be held.

Source: RFE