Sergei Bagapsh, the opposition’s presidential candidate in the disputed presidential elections in Georgia’s breakaway region, Abkhazia, is inching toward securing the presidency. On November 26, the Abkhazian parliament officially decreed the October 3 presidential elections valid, “despite certain electoral violations” and declared Bagapsh president-elect. The decree sets December 6 as inauguration day. In an interview with Itar-Tass, Bagapsh’s main rival, Raul Khajimba, who enjoys support from the incumbent Abkhaz government and Moscow, dismissed the parliamentary decree as “absurd.”
In addition to the parliament, Bagapsh has received support from Abkhazia’s Council of Elders, an informal but highly influential organization in the Abkhaz community. At the November 20 meeting of the Council of Elders, Bagapsh and about one hundred elders from districts across Abkhazia questioned the impartiality of Council chair Pavel Ardzinba and secured changes in the Council’s membership. On November 23, Ardzinba, who had initially advocated repeating the elections, had changed his attitude and announced Bagapsh as the winner. The Council of Elders unsuccessfully attempted to persuade Khajimba to cooperate with Bagapsh and take a key post in his government, which Bagapsh himself has offered Khajimba several times.
But Bagapsh still faces a rocky road to presidency. His opponents appear to have consolidated. On November 26, the press office of ailing outgoing Abkhaz president Vladislav Ardzinba condemned the parliament’s decree to install Bagapsh. Ardzinba said that he would retain presidential authority after December 6 because Bagapsh and his team seized power by force, and he reiterated the need to repeat the presidential vote. The statement particularly emphasized that Bagapsh’s presidency would deepen civil dissent and jeopardize Abkhazia’s security and independence. Like his patron, Khajimba has argued that a Bagapsh presidency would divide Abkhaz society. The third leading presidential hopeful, Sergei Shamba and his Social Democratic Party, have also embraced the idea of repeat elections. Stanislav Lakoba, a vice-presidential candidate, told Regnum that “Khajimba has fully discredited himself” and his team has almost dissolved.
But it seems that Khajimba has not yet exhausted his resources. On November 27, a pro-Khajimba TV station started broadcasting, in order to counteract state television, which is controlled by Bagapsh supporters. Apart from media outlets, the rival camps critically need support from the power ministries. According to Bagapsh, “90% of the power agencies support me,” while Ardzinba’s staff claimed that all agencies of force remain loyal to the president (Izvestia.ru, November 22; Regnum, Polit.ru, RIA-Novosti, Lenta.ru, Prime-Tass, November 24-26).
On November 25, several Abkhaz parliamentarians publicly expressed concern about the creation of new armed groups under the command of government security guards. Earlier there were reports that Abkhazia Russian commandos have been disguised as Abkhaz servicemen. Paata Davitaya, an official with the Abkhaz government-in-exile, said that Russian paratroopers’ battalions in Maikop (a town in southern Russia) are waiting for the order to invade Abkhazia (Regnum, Resonance, November 25-26).
Meanwhile, Nodar Khashba, the Russia-installed Prime Minister of Abkhazia, abruptly left for Moscow on November 25. Before his departure, Khashba did not exclude the possibility of his resignation “if we see that nothing depends on us” (Regnum, November 25; NTV Mir, November 23).
Russia, frustrated over its inability to install its puppet in Abkhazia, likely has decided to assert its will. (November 23) quoted Russian government official as saying, “Russia will have to stop humanitarian help to Abkhazia until [the region] overcomes its post-election legal crisis.” Alexander Tkachov, governor of Russia’s Krasnodar Krai, in a widely televised interview openly threatened to close the border with Abkhazia and stop paying pensions to Abkhaz residents if the candidates fail to come to agreement by December 6. “Let people demand their pensions from an illegitimate government,” he added (NTV, Rustavi-2, November 22)
The drawn-out political crisis has also aggravated the region’s economy. The national bank of Abkhazia reports that depositors are increasingly withdrawing their funds. The tightened control over the Russo-Abkhaz border has already harmed frontier trade of citrus fruits, the main source of income for many Abkhazians.
Last week Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili made conflicting statements about Abkhazia. On November 22, addressing a congress of the ruling National Movement-Democratic Party, Saakashvili said, “Georgians should sacrifice their lives to restore the country’s territorial integrity.” He said the battle will be fierce and will bring Georgian society “great difficulties and great losses.” Then on November 23, at a meeting with leading Georgian television companies, Saakashvili claimed that Georgia has certain ways to influence Abkhazia but has not used them, so far (TV-Rustavi-2, Imedi TV, TV-Mze, RIA-Novosti, November 22). As early as on September 10 Saakashvili told a meeting of the Abkhaz government-in-exile, “We do not intend to wage war against the Abkhazians . . . We will return to Abkhazia with love” (see EDM, September 15).
Some Georgian analysts are drawing parallels between the disputed election results in Abkhazia and the current situation in Ukraine. Political analyst Ramaz Klimiashvili says that the compromise that Bagapsh offered Khajimba might be a solution to the Ukrainian dispute (Resonance, November 27). Another analyst Ghia Nodia argued that voters in Ukraine and Abkhazia have rejected the Soviet-style relations that they had with Russia. He said that Russia would come off as a loser even if succeeds in installing its puppets in Abkhazia and Ukraine (7 Days, November 26).
Khajimba, himself comparing the situations in Abkhazia and Ukraine, spoke about the possible disintegration of the region. In case of a Bagapsh presidency, one part of Abkhazia would be under Georgia and the other under Russia, he commented (TV Rustavi-2, November 30).