On October 3, voters in Abkhazia will choose a successor to their ailing president. Vladislav Ardzinba led the region in its fight for independence from Georgia in 1992 and 1993 before becoming president of the self-declared republic in 1994. The new president of Abkhazia will win a five-year term, subject to a two-term limit.
The Georgian government has watched the unfolding campaign with an Olympian calm. As recently as September 21, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili described plans to re-incorporate Abkhazia into Georgia at the 59th session of the UN General Assembly. No comments on the election were made at the traditional commemoration of September 27, the day the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, fell 11 years ago, effecting the secession of the region. Earlier Saakashvili dismissed the elections as illegitimate and Nino Burjanadze, chair of the Georgian parliament, warned Russia against conferring any recognition or legitimacy on the elections.
A number of candidates have registered, although several refused to comply with a controversial new law passed on August 3 that requires candidates to pass an Abkhaz-language test and to have been resident in Abkhazia for the past five years. Alexander Ankvab, a popular former Abkhaz interior minister now living in Russia, and Nodar Khashba, a former mayor of Sukhumi and now a high-ranking official in the Russian Ministry of Civil Defense and Emergencies, were denied registration by the Central Election Commission (CEC) after they refused to sit the Abkhaz language test and failed to meet residency criteria.
Among the registered candidates, the front-runner is Raul Khadzhimba, a former prime minister. His running mate is Vitaly Smyr, the Abkhaz minister of agriculture and food. Khadzhimba has a KGB background and the endorsement of President Ardzinba plus rumored backing from Moscow. He also is supported by many divisions and bureaucrats in Abkhaz state agencies. Georgian commentators depict Khadzhimba as the most radically anti-Georgian of the candidates. Khadzhimba has already made it clear that he plans to make major changes to the constitution if elected. The amendments include giving the president the power to dissolve parliament and introducing parliamentary confirmation of new governments.
Sergei Bagapsh, director-general of the Chernomorenergo electricity company, trails Khadzhimba. Bagapsh served as prime minister from 1997 to 2001. He is standing as a candidate for the recently merged United Abkhazia movement and the Amtsakhara veterans’ organization and is regarded as the main opposition candidate. His chances are thought to have increased after the disqualification of Aytayra movement candidate Alexander Ankvab, who, in return for urging Aytayra supporters to back Bagapsh, has been promised the post of prime minister in the event of a Bagapsh victory. Both the Georgian and Abkhaz media have made a point of the fact that Bagapsh has a Georgian wife, but remain divided over how this will affect his policies and popularity. Analysts speculate that a united opposition would decrease the chances of a Khadzhimba victory. Bagapsh’s running mate is the historian Stanislav Lakoba.
Sergei Shamba, former foreign minister, is running third with a platform urging “greater political, economic, and humanitarian” integration with Russia. Shamba has angrily denied rumors that he intends to pull out of the presidential race at the last minute and throw his support to another candidate. Shamba’s running mate is Vladimir Arshba, head of the Ministry of Defense General Staff.
The other two candidates concede they have slim chances for victory. Anri Jergenia is also a former prime minister (running with Ruslan Kishmaria, chairman of the Gali district administration), while Yakub Lakoba is leader of the Abkhaz People’s Party (running with Fatima Kvitsinia, arbitration court judge).
The fairness of the elections is increasingly doubtful. The CEC denied requests from the League of Voters for Fair Elections to serve as monitors. This NGO had severely criticized the CEC’s performance. The CEC claimed that the election law contained no provision for NGOs to act as observers unless they have been invited to do so by the Abkhaz authorities. The UN and OSCE do not consider the elections legitimate and therefore will not send monitoring teams. Instead, members of the Russian State Duma and representatives from Russia’s North Caucasus republics, South Ossetia, and Karabakh are expected to act as election observers.
Although the Abkhaz CEC lists 165,248 eligible voters, down from 216,000 in the 2002 parliamentary elections, Georgian sources further lower this figure to 70,000, due to widespread population shifts before and after the war. Additionally, most voters in Abkhazia are believed to hold Russian citizenship, and therefore may not be able to prove their eligibility to vote. Abkhazia has yet to introduce internal passports and officials are issuing special forms as an interim measure. Bagapsh shared his surprise that the CEC still did not have the exact number for Abkhazia’s population and the number of voters. “How can you hold fair elections without these data?” he asked.
More critically minded commentators are pessimistic regarding the elections. Oleg Damenia, an Abkhaz analyst, argues that the Abkhaz electorate is not mentally prepared for a fair election, as its psychological makeup still bears Soviet-era habits. “The pre-election campaign has overstepped all permissible limits, and thus it’s difficult to forecast whether the electorate would behave within the licit framework,” he said. According to Damenia, losers will likely protest after election day. Candidate Shamba has warned that vote-rigging would only play into the hands of external forces, and Abkhazia might see a replay of the Georgian or Yugoslav revolutions. Recently, representatives of the Sukhumi-based branch of Soros Foundation have dismissed some media allegations that the Foundation might financially support a “pro-Georgian” candidate.
Some analysts still consider that Ardzinba’s departure creates an opportunity to change the relationship between Georgia and the Abkhaz leadership. They argue that Tbilisi could take advantage of the struggle between the Moscow-backed Khadzhimba and his opponents. But the Abkhaz separatists have resolutely rejected any plans for reintegrating Abkhazia with Georgia.
Today (August 29) the Abkhaz Ministry of State Security claimed that Georgian task forces and weaponry are concentrating along the Abkhaz border, and it called on residents of Abkhazia to exercise vigilance. The ministry’s special statement also claims that President Saakashvili directed Georgian special services to step up subversive activities in Abkhazia, particularly in the Georgian -populated Gali district, in order to provoke conflict among supporters of the Abkhaz presidential candidates. Tbilisi has not responded to these statements.
(Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 27; Regnum.ru, RIA Novosti, Media News, September 24; Apsnypress, September 16, 20; Trud, September 21, 22; Itar-Tass, September 22; Kavkasia-Press, September 11; BBC Monitoring Research, September 22; TV Imedi, September 27; TV-Rustavi-2, September 24; regnum.ru, sakartvelo.info, September 29).