Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 1

Elections in Blockaded Abkhazia

By Maria Eismont

The parliamentary elections just held in Abkhazia virtually coincided with the presidential elections in two other unrecognized states formed as the result of interethnic conflicts in the post-perestroika period — Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia. All of these elections were condemned beforehand and not recognized by the international community, and after they were held, all of the existing regimes remained in power. Obviously, their main goal was to demonstrate once again to the world that these states exist, hold democratic elections, and have a claim to recognition. The only intrigue concerning the elections was the question of the expected reaction to them from the federations of which they were once a part. The elections in Abkhazia were most interesting from this standpoint, since, after the tough and angry statements that the Georgian side made about the illegitimacy of the elections, observers did not rule out the possibility of armed confrontations on the border.

Not only Georgia, but all international organizations as well, condemned the idea of holding any elections whatsoever in Abkhazia until the return of Georgian refugees to their former homeland. According to Georgian figures, there are from 250,000 to 300,000 refugees, according to Abkhazian figures, 100,000 to 150,000, and according to independent international observers, the figure is about 200,000. Most of these refugees are in Mingrelia, the district of Georgia which borders Abkhazia. Abkhazia’s former Georgian government, which now calls itself the "Abkhazian Government-in-Exile," and still has hopes of returning home someday, is located in this district’s center, Zugdidi. They do not rule out the possibility of armed confrontation with the Abkhazians, although they guarantee that "those who did not take up arms" will not be touched.

But no one believes that there will be any resumption of hostilities: the desire of the Zugdidi government to settle scores with the Abkhazians who drove them out is not shared by Eduard Shevardnadze’s government, which has no room for a new war in its plans for the near future. The Georgian government is completely satisfied with the blockade of its former autonomous republic and hopes to use economic means to force Vladislav Ardzinba’s government to become more tractable. Nevertheless, the peace talks that have lasted for the past three years have brought no perceptible successes for either side, and promise to drag on endlessly. The assurances of the two sides that they support a peaceful resolution to the conflict seem to satisfy the world community, and the existing order of things will probably be around for a long time to come.

According to Abkhazia’s foreign minister Alika Kchacha, 35 people have been killed, 22 wounded, nine taken hostage, and ten homes burned down in the Gali raion in the last ten months. The Abkhazian government expected an outbreak of sabotage and military actions in the Gali raion, and sent additional troops there. Their predictions came true, although on a smaller scale than they expected. Possibly, this was linked with the fact that the Abkhazian elections coincided with a plebiscite conducted by the Georgian government, in which ethnic Georgian refugees from the republic were asked whether they agreed with the holding of elections in Abkhazia before the restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity. Obviously, most refugees answered in the negative.

The two sides insisted on their own positions, and each maintained that its own election demonstrated the true wishes of the majority of Abkhazia’s population. The parallel elections canceled each other out, sparing both sides the need for an additional reaction, which could grow into an open military confrontation. The incidents in the Gali raion, were most likely prepared and carried out by individual field commanders. Although the Georgian government probably had nothing to do with them, that is far from saying that it condemned them. The day before the voting, an armored personnel carrier belonging to the Russian peacekeeping forces hit an antitank mine in the Gali raion, and as a result, one soldier was seriously wounded. Late that evening, the administration building in the village of Mziuri, which was scheduled to be a polling place, was blown up. The day of the elections, bombs went off at four polling places, and one Abkhazian MVD officer was wounded in a shoot-out with Georgian partisans who had infiltrated into Gali.

But in spite of these bombings in the Gali raion, election day became a real holiday for Abkhazians, who were doing nothing special anyway, due to the harsh economic blockade. In the absence of any officially-registered parties or movements (except for the pro-government "Popular Party of Abkhazia), the candidates for deputy to the republican parliament represented only themselves. Their election programs boiled down to proposals to solve the economic problems of a concrete region, and promises to do everything possible to lift the blockade. Most of the voters had no faith in such promises, and elected their representatives on the basis of their former services to the republic (military, as a rule) or their personal sympathies.

Everywhere except for the Gali raion bordering Georgia, the elections went just as they go in all democratic states: several people ran for each seat in the Popular Assembly, and a candidate had to get over 50 percent of the vote to win. Several precincts had to hold runoff elections. Popular participation was extremely high, since participation in the election was seen as a definite political step against Georgia, which every true Abkhazian patriot was obliged to make. But anyone who did not wish to come to the voting urn could quietly stay home without any fear of becoming persona non grata.

The situation was completely different in the Gali raion, whose residents — ethnic Georgians (Mingrelians) — were remarkably active: crowds of elderly women dressed in black frantically rushed to the polls. But their activity could hardly be seen as an expression of their will: the people were terrified, and accustomed to being "bull’s eyes," caught in the middle between the Abkhazian authorities, who accuse them of collaboration with the Georgian partisans (former residents of this raion, who periodically make raids into Gali), and the partisans themselves, who often accuse their countrymen of collaboration with the unrecognized Abkhazian government. As Russian peacekeepers deployed in the Gali raion told me, the local population often turns to them for help.

Armed Abkhazian MVD officers manned the polling places in the Gali raion, which gave the Georgian side a pretext to claim that the residents of Gali were voting at gunpoint. The Abkhazian soldiers, who did not try to hide their presence near the voting urns, justified it in terms of the demands of security. "If we weren’t here," they said, "the Georgians would have blown up all the polling places." But these armed people had no influence on the voting anyway: in all the precincts in the Gali raion, there was only one candidate on the ballot, and the absence of voting booths at some polling places denied voters even the chance to cross that candidate’s name off the ballot in private.

The absence of any alternatives did not prevent the Abkhazian authorities from declaring their elections to be "democratic." As the soldiers standing guard in Gali maintained, "we were lucky even to find these candidates. Nobody wanted to run."

All the candidates who ran in the Gali raion were ethnic Georgians, who did not participate in the war against the Abkhaz, and held official positions in local self-government after the war. Another ethnic Georgian ran in one of the precincts in Sukhumi, and, having received the most votes, made it into the second round. The Abkhazian government frequently reminded observers and journalists of this, although Mr. Vazha Zarandia had long been the head of the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet, and during the war, was clearly on the side of the seceding republic.

The ethnic composition of the list of candidates for deputy was widely publicized by the republic’s government as a sign of its internationalism: out of the 81 candidates, there were 56 ethnic Abkhaz, eleven Russians, ten Armenians, one Ossetian, one Greek, one Kabardin and the aforementioned three Georgians.

The beginning of the war in Chechnya was met with a wave of pro-Chechen meetings, and registration points even began to open here and there, to enlist volunteers to fight on the Chechen side. (During the Georgian-Abkhazian war, many Chechens, under the command of Shamil Basayev, helped the Abkhazians.) But for reasons which are still unknown, none of the Abkhazians actually made it to Chechnya, which offended the Chechens very much. At the same time, Abkhazia’s open support for Dudaev’s regime and his fight against Russia offended the latter as well. Under the pretext of fears that arms and fighters from Abkhazia could be sent across the border to Chechnya, the Russian government tightened security on the Russian-Abkhazian border, which passes along the river Psou.

But the undeclared blockade of Abkhazia existed even earlier, or at least the transportation of goods into or out of the republic was cut off. From 1995 on, it became a problem for people who did not live there to enter and leave Abkhazia, unless they had special documents and permission. Moreover, as a result of the tightening of the blockade, the only stable communication with the outside world, through Turkey, was cut off. Passenger ships stopped coming to Abkhazian ports, and freighters came extremely irregularly, approximately two or three times a month. As a rule, they pick up timber and scrap metal, which is the former resort’s main export, and in exchange, supply flour for the impoverished population.

The absence of any regular commerce, and consequently, of a money supply (in Abkhazia, just as before, Russian rubles are in circulation), has led to the complete impoverishment of the local inhabitants. The average pension is 2,500 rubles a month, which is not always enough to buy a loaf of bread. The republic’s government regularly organizes free kitchens for elderly people, but this is clearly not enough to feed everyone in need. The pensioners who work in the Sukhumi market, who earn only 5,000 rubles on the very best of days, say that they are helped by the organization "Hare Krishna: Food for Life," which offers free meals every day, their menu being a bowl of kasha and two pieces of bread.

The Abkhazians, aching from the economic blockade, predict further economic collapse and impoverishment of their natural resources, which have been exported from the republic in torrents over the last three years, and sold for next to nothing and the appearance of Vladislav Ardzinba in the opposition (at the present time, there is no opposition), "if he doesn’t figure out a way to get out of this crisis." Moreover, there has already been a "brain drain" as a result of the many years of decline: most Abkhazians who have good connections and an education have already left their republic, preferring to visit only when they are on vacation. The only thing the Abkhazian people are sure of, is that in spite of the blockade and their dire poverty, and all the pressure from Russia and the world community, they will never be part of Georgia.

Translated by Mark Eckert