Georgia’s breakaway region Abkhazia holds a second round of its presidential elections today (January 12). Sergei Bagapsh claimed victory in the initial election on October 3, 2004. However, Russian officials soon arrived in Abkhazia to annul the result. Russia forced Bagapsh to re-run the election, this time in tandem with Raul Khajimba, his main challenger and the candidate Moscow backed in round one. Bagapsh is running for president with Khajimba as his vice president.
Yakob Lakoba, leader of the People Party of Abkhazia, is the only challenger to Bagapsh-Khajimba ticket. Lakoba received only 509 votes on October 3 (Rosbalt, Itar-Tass, January 6). His long-shot candidacy makes the outcome of the elections quite predictable, unless something extraordinary happens. Lakoba has not ruled out the possibility of his membership in a coalition government.
The fairness of the election procedures is still in doubt. Lakoba complained that voter registries missed about one-third of Abkhazia’s potential voters. He said that 168,000 electors had been registered for the October 3 ballot, while the current total stands at 113,000 (RIA-Novosti, January 10).
With 14,374 registered voters, the Georgian-populated Gali district of Abkhazia largely made Bagapsh’s landslide victory on October 3 inevitable. However, the region is boycotting the January 12th vote. The ethnic Georgians in Gali consider it senseless to participate in the staged elections, because Moscow’s involvement makes Bagapsh’s victory a foregone conclusion. On January 9, Bagapsh and Khajimba visited Gali in an attempt to mobilize voters, but only about 100 people attended the meeting.
The Tbilisi-based Abkhaz government-in-exile argues that there are many disillusioned people in Sukhumi, Ochamchire, and other parts of Abkhazia. The individuals cannot accept the fact that Bagapsh made a deal with his former rival, Khajimba. (Rustavi-2, Regnum, January 9; Radio Imedi, January 6).
Abkhaz law enforcement officials are searching for the individuals or group that disseminated anti-Russian materials on the eve of the election. On January 11, the Georgian news agency Interpress received the text of a proclamation signed by veterans of the Abkhaz “Amtsabzi” battalion. The proclamation slams Russia for humiliating Abkhaz national pride and ignoring the will of the Abkhaz nation, while calling Russian President Vladimir Putin the “butcher of Beslan.” The proclamation, which claims, “The Russians forced the elected leader to cut a deal that damages the self-esteem of the freedom-loving highlanders,” has been distributed in all major villages and towns of Abkhazia. “We were fighting for the independence of Abkhazia, not to make Abkhazia a part of Russia,” the proclamation concludes (Resonance, January 12).
The Abkhaz authorities fear a low turnout today, which could invalidate the election. The Abkhaz establishment and the leading presidential candidate were doing their best to bring out the vote in the run-up to the new election. Stories about voter intimidation and calls not to vote have circulated throughout the pre-election period. Abkhaz prime minister Nodar Khashba also complained to the media about delays (Regnum, January 5). The elections have the potential for fraud, which would most likely benefit outgoing Abkhaz president Vladislav Ardzinba, his clan, and, to a certain extent, Moscow.
Analysts say that despite taming a relatively freewheeling Bagapsh, Moscow nevertheless is not happy to see him as president, even with limited sovereignty. Moscow and Ardzinba’s clan particularly object to Alexander Ankvab, Bagapsh’s likely nominee for prime minister. Ankvab has already promised voters that he would confiscate all illegally earned property if he becomes prime minister, evidently alluding to advantages enjoyed by Ardzinba’s clan.
In recent weeks the Abkhaz government has done its best to deplete the powers of the presidency before Bagapsh assumes the office. On December 27, the Abkhaz parliament passed a constitutional amendment, “On the Duties and Powers of the Vice-President of the Republic of Abkhazia.” The target of the amendment is patently clear: the new law would come into force only if Bagapsh is elected president and Khajimba as vice-president, and it would remain in force for their entire term of office. The law grants the vice-president power to coordinate government activities in the field of foreign policy, and the critical spheres of defense and security (Abkhaziya.info, Itar-Tass, December 27). Although the Abkhaz authorities argue that the bill is the result of an agreement on national accord, few people doubt that the law is largely tailored to the interests of Moscow and the government-backed Khajimba.
During the campaign, Abkhaz officials and presidential hopefuls heaped praise on Russia. On December 27, prime minister Khashba welcomed a statement made by President Putin on December 23, in which he compared the situation in Georgia’s secessionist provinces to the situation in Kosovo. “For the first time in many years, the Russian leadership took a serious stance towards the Abkhaz problem” (Regnum, Apsnypress, January 5). Meeting with members of the Abkhaz intelligentsia, Bagapsh declared that Abkhazia favors integration with Russia. “We know how much Russia did for us during the war and after it,” he added (Abkhaziya.info, December 28).
Some Georgian analysts argue that should the runoff fail, Bagapsh will be deprived of both the political and the moral right to stand again, which would pave the way for an outspokenly pro-Russian candidate (Resonance, January 10, Akhali Taoba, Rustavi-2, January 8).
Moscow realizes that behind Abkhazia’s calm surface there remains a tense political atmosphere. This understanding may explain why the election will be conducted under Russia’s vigilant watch. After receiving a formal blessing from President Putin, the deputy chairman of the Russian State Duma, Sergei Baburin, together with a group of Russian parliamentarians arrived in Abkhazia on January 10 to monitor the elections. As he has done on other occasions, Baburin entered the Georgian region of Abkhazia without asking official permission from Tbilisi. Baburin is accompanied by Vladimir Kolesnikov, deputy prosecutor-general of Russia (Rustavi-2, January 10). They mediated the reconciliation between Bagapsh and Khajimba that led to the December 6, 2004, signing of an agreement on national accord.
The Georgian government, in the person of State Minister for Conflict Settlement Giorgi Khaindrava, has already protested Baburin’s visit and noted that Russia is the only country that has sent observers to monitor the illegitimate Abkhaz election (TV-Rustavi-2, January 10).