Abkhazian opposition leader ‘poisoned again’

5 March 2020
Aslan Bzhaniya giving a press conference in the Interfax agency office in Moscow on Saturday. Source: Interfax.

Abkhazian opposition leader Aslan Bzhaniya has fallen seriously ill less than three weeks before snap presidential elections are due to take place. Bzhaniya’s allies allege he was poisoned. He had fallen similarly ill before elections in 2019 amidst similar allegations.  

According to Russian and local media, Bzhaniya fell ill while in Sochi, a city in Russia’s Krasnodar Krai, on Monday and had to be briefly placed into a medically-induced coma to transfer him from a local hospital to Krasnodar regional clinic, 170 kilometres northwest, by helicopter.

He was later reported to have come out of the coma, and on 4 March, Abkhazia’s Health Ministry said he had been diagnosed with bilateral polysegmental pneumonia.

This is the second time Bzhaniya has fallen ill on the eve of an election. Last April, Bzhaniya fell seriously ill in what he and his supporters say was a deliberate poisoning.

His supporters, several hundred of whom briefly occupied the office of the government cabinet on Tuesday and protested outside it, have claimed that this was another attempt on his life. 

Leonid Lakerbaiya, deputy campaign manager of Bzhaniya, stated during the rally that 'there will be no elections in Abkhazia’ without their candidate.

Acting Abkhazian President Valeriy Bganba met the other two presidential candidates, Adgur Ardzinba, and Leonid Dzapshba to share news of Bzhaniya’s illness with them. 

A day later, Leonid Dzapshba proposed postponing the elections for a month due to Bzhaniya’s illness, while Adgur Ardzinba, according to Bzhaniya’s headquarters, visited his rival in Krasnodar on Thursday — the details of the discussion have not been made public.

Early elections

The news of Bzhaniya’s illness came less than three weeks before snap presidential elections where Bzhaniya is considered as the main contender. 

The early elections were set for 22 March by Abkhazia’s Central Election Commission (CEC) on 12 January, following the Supreme Court’s decision two days earlier to accept a bid of Alkhas Kvitsiniya, Bzhaniya’s ally, to overturn the results of September’s presidential elections. 

As a result, Raul Khadzhimba, whose re-election in September triggered anti-government protests in capital Sukhumi, was forced to step down and relinquish his powers.

Alkhas Kvitsiniya, chair of the opposition Amtsakhara party, who successfully waged a four-month legal battle against the September vote results, acted as Aslan Bzhaniya’s replacement and was the main challenger to the sitting president after Bzhaniya was hospitalised last April. 

It has been over seven months since opposition forces, dominated by the Amtsakhara party, have been seeking to elect the fifth Abkhaz president.  

‘Poisoning’

Following the news of Bzhaniya’s poor health on 2 March, the Investigation Department under the office of Abkhazia’s General Prosecutor has announced that they have launched an investigation.

They appealed to individuals close to Bzhaniya, asking them to provide any information about the ‘intentional poisoning’ that they were alleging. 

Ekho Kavkaza, RFE/RL’s Russian language service covering Abkhazia cited the Prosecutor’s Office concluding that as 'none' of Bzhaniya's associates had cooperated with authorities, they 'did not have anything to substantiate a claim of intentional poisoning'.

On 3 March, Russian news agency Ria Novosti cited a source from the  'medical community' where Bzhaniya was placed saying that the doctors there concluded that he was 'poisoned with an unknown substance'. 

A day later, the Abkhazian government’s website announced that during a meeting with Alexey Dvinyanin, the Russian Ambassador in Abkhazia, acting President Valeriy Bganba demanded that Russian reports about Bzhaniya being ‘poisoned’, 'including in state media', be ‘immediately’ criminally investigated.

‘We are treating it [the report] as an undisguised attempt to destabilise the social-political situation in Abkhazia which could trigger a civil conflict’, the press-release quoted Bganba as saying. ‘We will treat failure to meet our demands as an unfriendly step towards the Republic of Abkhazia. We retain our right to act within the interest of protecting our sovereignty and our citizens.’

[Image: Alexey Dvinyanin (left) and Valeriy Bganba during the 4 March morning meeting. Official photo.]

Dvinyanin reportedly promised to convey the message to the Russian leadership and on his part, ‘expressed concern’ over reports that ‘extremists from different political circles in Abkhazia were planning to picket the Russian Embassy — Abkhazia’s ally and strategic partner’.

Bzhaniya was reported to have fallen ill after spending a night in Krasnaya Polyana, a ski resort that had hosted the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014. He was returning from a visit to Moscow. 

He was on the same Moscow-Sochi route last year in April when he similarly fell ill, after which he was brought to the Buyanov Moscow City Clinical Hospital and later to a clinic in Munich, Germany. 

In May 2019, the National Movement for the Protection of Statehood (OND),  the Bzhaniya-helmed opposition coalition, said that the ‘independent’ medical tests conducted in Munich identified ‘high levels’ of cadmium, benzodiazepines, and mercury in his blood, as well as a high level of aluminium in Bzhaniya’s urine. 

They said doctors had speculated that the presence of benzodiazepines in Bzhaniya’s blood could be traces of sedatives, while cadmium could be a result of two blood cleaning procedures. According to the opposition, doctors in Germany identified mercury and aluminium as the main causes of the suspected poisoning.

This version of the story has remained popular despite the Association of Doctors of Abkhazia in Moscow and later the Abkhazian government ruling out the possibility that Bzhaniya had been poisoned. 

In January, Bzhaniya returned to Abkhazia saying he was interrupting his treatment as he intended to support Kvitsiniya’s efforts to cancel the results of elections in Fall. 

[Read more on OC Media: Abkhazian presidential challenger vows to fight election despite ‘poisoning’]

Bzhaniya’s past

In the 2014 presidential election, Bzhaniya, a former head of Abkhazia’s State Security Service (SGB), came second after Khadzhimba, receiving 36% of the vote.

A former ally of third president Aleksandr Ankvab, who resigned in May 2014 following opposition protests, he later said running for president was a mistake, suggesting it legitimised the elections that followed Ankvab’s resignation.

In 2015, he founded Apra, a foundation ‘studying social-economic and political issues’ in Abkhazia. Two years later, he was elected to the Abkhazian parliament, the National Assembly, and has since been widely considered one of the main challengers to Khadzhimba.

In December 2016, while entering Abkhazia from Russia through the River Psou checkpoint, Aslan Bzhaniya was detained and questioned in Sochi by Russian authorities on suspicion of illegally possessing ammunition. Released after two days, Bzhaniya and his supporting Amtsakhara opposition party accused president Khadzhimba of being behind the arrest.

In a 4 March interview with Abkhazia Inform, Bzhaniya described the current Abkhazian government as ‘unprofessional’, ‘incompetent’, and riddled by a ‘high level of corruption’.

 For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.

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