The preparations for the October 3 presidential elections in Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia region are gaining momentum and presenting political surprises. Sergei Shamba, the former foreign minister, has kept his promise to stay in politics after his party, United Abkhazia, refused to nominate him as a presidential candidate. On August 7, an initiative group formally named Shamba as its candidate. That same day Raul Khajimba, prime minister of Abkhazia and protege of the incumbent president, Vladislav Ardzinba, officially registered himself as a presidential candidate.
The other candidates already registered with the Abkhaz Central Electoral Commission are: Sergei Bagapsh, prime minister in 1996-99, nominated by the influential United Abkhazia and Amtsakhara groups; Alexander Ankvab, formerly the minister of interior and now leader of the Abkhaz Diaspora in Moscow; and Anri Jergenia, another former prime minister, who remarked, “My chances of winning the presidential elections aren’t as hopeless as it seems at one sight” (Resonance, August 6; TV Rustavi-2, TV-Imedi, Interpress, August 5).
Observers expect more candidates will come forward, although several potential candidates cannot meet all the registration requirements. The Abkhaz Electoral Code’s specification that a presidential candidate must have lived in Abkhazia for the last five years has taken Inal Kazan out of contention. Kazan is an influential Abkhaz public figure, known to be willing to negotiate reintegration into Georgia, and currently resides in the United States.
Bagapsh currently leads the Abkhaz energy company Chernomorenergo, and his career began as a member of the nomenklatura in Tbilisi in 1980s. The Georgian media give more attention to Bagapsh than any other Abkhaz presidential candidate, probably for his moderate views. During the first week of August, the Georgian media alleged that Bagapsh was involved in several million-dollar energy deals with Georgian officials (TV-Rustavi-2, August 4).
The election campaign is gathering steam at a time of increasing anti-Georgian propaganda. All candidates go to great lengths to demonstrate their adherence to the separatist agenda. Bagapsh, for example, extolled President Ardzinba, who spearheaded the Abkhaz independence movement, when he announced that Ardzinba’s name “will add a golden page to the history of Abkhazia ” (Rustavi-2, August 4).
In a related development, the Georgian government has begun to enforce its maritime borders, turning back commercial tour boats operating between Russia and Abkhazia and shooting at a Turkish boat heading to Sukhumi (Prime-News, August 4) These actions have evidently played into the hands of the radically anti-Georgian candidates, who are trying to scare up votes through raucous anti-Georgian statements. Shamba said that Tbilisi’s actions actually helped radical candidates such as Raul Khajimba who immediately called for a suspension of any peace talks with Georgia.
Khajimba has already installed confidants in key Abkhaz government posts, including Foreign Minister Igor Akhba and Security Minister Mikhail Tarba. Both are known as ardent separatists. Sources say that Tarba has a degree of influence on the paramilitary groups operating in Gali district, one of the densely populated regions containing both Abkhaz and ethnic Georgians. Khajimba hopes these connections will guarantee him about 20,000 votes (Mtavari gazeti, August 2). This would be a significant asset for Khajimba, as the expected voter turnout is about 70,000 at best. If Khajimba succeeds in mobilizing such resources to garner votes in other regions of Abkhazia, his victory is almost guaranteed.
Opposition counter-tactics remain unclear. With four opposition candidates on the ballot, they may cancel out each other, allowing the government’s candidate to breeze to a victory. There are hints that some of the weaker candidates may pull out closer to the elections to help consolidate the opposition vote.
Tbilisi, meanwhile, has stayed outside the presidential race, biding its time until the current anti-Georgian sentiments subside. Ivliane Khaindrava, a member of parliament actively involved in the search for solutions to the Abkhaz conflict, says that it is better to have a separatist Abkhaz president than a puppet from Moscow (Vremya novostei, August 3). Vakhtang Kholbaya, the former vice chairman of the exiled Abkhaz government, assumes that Tbilisi and Moscow might be able to negotiate a mutually acceptable candidate (Imedi TV, August 8). However, Tamaz Nadareishvili, former chair of the exiled Abkhaz government, believes that whatever the outcome, Tbilisi should not expect any serious concessions from Abkhazia (Imedi TV, August 8).